I believe most people who have spent a reasonable time in the UAE wrestle with two competing paradigms as to how the country works.

Is it (A) a suffocating bureaucracy in which any attempt at doing anything innovative grinds to a halt at the desk of a rulebound gentleman from the sub-continent (*) who has worked thanklessly for twenty years in an unmarked windowless room, located many miles of echoing corridors deep within the Ministry of Obstruction?

Or is it (B) a glorious anarchic free-for-all in which almost anything goes? Where, for instance, a missed highway turn is easily rectified by reversing back up the hard shoulder or plunging briefly into the sands.

The answer is of course a bit of both.

Rock climbing certainly operates chiefly within paradigm (B). We never ask permission to climb or even establish who owns the cliffs. Nor do we look for licences or club memberships from our prospective climbing partners. We infer each other’s competence from nuggets of behaviour, appearance or talk: being able to discuss climbs or climbing areas in other countries, having some gear and demonstrating appropriate usage (ie not racking trad protection for a sport route!), showing some power or grace in movement, not being overweight, etc, etc. This seems right and proper to me and in line with the climbing world elsewhere. There have been vague attempts to foist more structure on the community by people with vested interest but they have been resisted or ridiculed.

The problem with paradigm (B) comes when innocents are at risk. For example, the lack of bureaucratic overview means that almost anyone can market themselves as an outdoor climbing instructor or guide. And given the often-bored and transient character of the UAE expat population: plenty of clueless potential customers. Should we care who exploits that opportunity? I think so. Leaving aside the direct impact on a victim, a serious accident resulting from an incompetent instructor’s negligence that leads to adverse publicity could be disastrous for the sport in the UAE. I would expect: official bans at UAE climbing sites and calls for mandatory insurance and external regulation. If the victim were local and well-connected, then all bets would be off.

So, since at present we are a self-regulating community, what sort of instructors should we tolerate? The only practical answer is people with accredited qualifications. I have expressed that opinion in the guidebook and followed it up with a list of known qualified instructors at the guidebook resources web page. They are all people with UK qualifications. That’s part coincidence but part reflects the well-established nature of the UK mountain training sector. If anyone wants to be on that list and has another country’s qualification, then I would check a database like the UIAA’s and add them if the qualification were recognised.

If you have read this far, you may be guessing there’s a context to this. You are right. Various verbal anecdotes, emails and Facebook messages have revealed a vigorous effort by one non-credible individual to conduct instruction business. An american friend forwarded me correspondence with that individual showing suggested rates of 500-700 AED per client per day. His “qualification” is attendance at a Single Pitch Instructor course in the US. But not, as far as I know, the two day SPI assessment. That’s rather like deciding to drive solo after having a few driving lessons but before having passed a driving test; not something countries with sensible traffic regimes encourage. There’s only so much that we can do to dissuade people like this – particularly when known to be pig-headed – except peer pressure. So, if you agree with me, know who I am talking about (I don’t want to sully my blog with his name) and have an opportunity, please express your opinion to him and/or dissuade anyone entrusting themselves to his hands.

* apologies for this stereotyping but it does appear to be universally true. Be respectful to these folk, shake their hands, ask after their family, know where (usually) Kerala can be found on the map and the rules may even briefly relax for you.

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13 Responses to “cowboys”

  1. Alan Stark says:

    Good rant


    – Google Earth gives 4 possible locations for Kerela — two are in West Africa, and two are in England, and I doubt whether there are many in the UAE who would have heard of either. ;-)

  2. admin says:

    Bugger. Thought I’d checked the spelling (I wasn’t sure). Now corrected!

    It’s not a rant!

  3. Alan Stark says:


    I agree totally with your views on ‘instructors’ – particularly self appointed ones. It only takes one ****wit ( insert four letter word of your choice) to bring the weight of authority crashing down on generally very responsible UAE climbing community.

    Unless I knew their background personally, a person holding the UK SPA or equivalent issued by a UIAA recognised organisation is the absolute minimum standard I’d trust with the life of anyone I knew.

    For what it’s worth, if I was ever to come across someone as blatantly irresponsible as he who’s name shall not sully your blog, then they would certainly receive a piece of my mind in no uncertain terms.

  4. I’ve got a good idea who ‘he who shall not be named’ is but my question is how do those not in the know find out?

    If your not prepared to name them then what is the point of this post

  5. admin says:

    It’s a good point Ian. I guess all I am really trying to do is reinforce the point my site already makes about checking qualifications. Peer pressure on this specific person would be nice but I amnot holding my breath. Actually this is not without precedent, we had a tennis pro apparently offering alpine mountaineering classes not long ago, and no doubt we have more of the same to look forward from others in the future.

  6. On topic – Bravo, this is a great concern everywhere. I have seen guys ignorantly guiding friends severely over their limits with no back up plan, guides with meaningless toprope instructor certificates and the ball cuppers to better climbers. All of these types put these areas and people in great risk. These people need to be weeded out and ridiculed at every turn for the good of all.

    Off topic – “We infer each other’s competence from nuggets of behavior, appearance or talk: being able to discuss climbs or climbing areas in other countries, having some gear and demonstrating appropriate usage (ie not racking trad protection for a sport route!), showing some power or grace in movement, not being overweight, etc, etc”

    Hey – I think I failed all of these during my UAE visit, but you still climbed with me. Better luck next time.

  7. admin says:

    Yeah I read that also. Actually whether the UAE actually has a legal system is another question on which I am unclear after six years here. The whole emirates vs federal thing seems to be a mess … then there’s sharia vs secular law. But I am sure that being sued by someone with significant wealth or wasta here is an uncomfortable experience.

  8. admin says:

    I think you passed criteria #1, Chris … I am sure we discussed City of Rocks and other western US venues at great length on the way to the crag!

  9. Elvis says:

    Hey chris i only let you climb with me cause you where dumb enough to walk up and belay for me at hatta while i was projecting there :) but I,m a climbing slut ill let anyone hold my rope and play with my nuts :) . Has anyone seen “he who shall not be named ” at a crag or wall lately ?

  10. Rachael says:

    Its a HUGE grey area. Part and parcel of living in an Emerging Marketplace (which the UAE has only just progressed into, (from ‘Frontier Marketplace Status’) is that the rules and regulations are still formulating and ever – changing.This obviously has positive (?) and negative implications on residents and guests alike.

    I do not claim to be any sort of expert on anything but from a expat-resident or sports consumer point-of-view, it definitely scares me a little how Health and Safety Laws, Policies and Procedures are still so raw.

    Does the UAE even have a Mountain Rescue Team/Department?

    Has anyone seen 127 hours? Accidents can happen so easily in the great outdoors, and more often than not, the approach can be more dangerous than the actual climb (in the context of rock-climbing) or how about a head injury from falling rock?

    Its definitely a risky game. Whilst I think UK and European Qualifications are excellent to have, I (once again) think that you don’t actually need them to operate here, which is a shame.

    Therefore I think it comes down to personal responsibility to ourselves and each other.

    Set an example, wear a helmet, take a personal first aid course, take care and responsibility for lending others your equipment, offering your support (e.g. as a belay) and genuinely look out for one and other.

    What goes around…comes around.

    Peace x

  11. Sandokan says:

    Rachael, to answer your questions, no there is no mountain rescue team/department. In the past the RAK police has pulled people of the mountains and used the helicopter for that. The problem is the helocopter is totally unsuitable for this as it has no winch. There has been a lot written over the past days about the liability when something happens. After 8 years here I figured out it is really simple. If a fatal accident happens (anywhere) the police will look at the people involved, put them in jail and then work out who is to blame. O yes and they can easily keep you there for months without laying charges. So you just don’t know till something happens. And if you charge people for activities you will be the person they look at. To avoid getting ‘hanged’ you will need the right licence backed up with insurance stating the activities you do. Then witha very good (local) lawyer you have achange of getting away with it.
    I myself was a mountain rescue volunteer with the State Emenrgecy Department in Australia. So I was covered, however being the first one to go up (first resonder) I had to be signed in at our base before I could go up. If not signed in I am liable for anything what may happen and pulled into the courts of law by hungry lawyers.
    So anybody running commercial tours should be carrefull.

  12. admin says:

    This is not strictly accurate. Abu Dhabi has a well funded emergency team with trained paramedics and appropriately-equipped helicopter. However they operate out of Abu Dhabi and only come to other emirates on request from that emirates’ police force. They have their own 800 number also, but I was requested to not publish it in the climbing guidebook for protocol reasons …