Rafting in the desert in the United Arab Emirates

inside the middle east rafting in the desert c_00063313
inside the middle east rafting in the desert c_00063313

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Story highlights

  • UAE rafting team competes in first World Rafting Championship
  • Gulf state has no natural rivers, created an artificial one
  • Team has a mixed experience in debut competition

(CNN)In the cult classic comedy film "Cool Runnings" a Jamaican bobsleigh team captures the hearts of the sporting public with an implausible campaign at the Winter Olympics, in a sport that is unknown on the Caribbean island.

The Jamaican sledders appear to have real-life counterparts in the form of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) rafting team, which is dreaming far beyond its apparent limitations.
There are no natural rivers in the Gulf state, no professional competitors, and the team captain saw his first river aged 31.
    But such trivial concerns have not stopped the team competing at the World Rafting Championship.

    If you build it, they will come

    The UAE has become adept at working around its desert climate. The Emiratis have pioneered methods of producing rain and snow to order, and their latest trick is to produce one of the world's largest artificial rivers.
    Rivers typically take millennia to form. But the man-made river in the town of Al-Ain dates back to just 2010, when ambitious local developer Saif Albrooshi decided to create it as the centerpiece of a $50 million theme park.
    The 480-meter artificial river at the Al Ain's Wadi Adventure theme park.
    His team created a 480-meter long river, capable of delivering 2,000 gallons of water per minute at the flick of a switch.
    The new river offered fast and challenging water conditions, suitable for elite competition, and earned Al Ain the right to host the 2016 World Rafting Championship.

    Crash course

    A condition of the UAE hosting the Championship was that it had to field a team.
    This was not easy given the dearth of experience among the Emirati population. But eventually a group was assembled from public safety officers.
    "I get a call from my manager: 'They're going to make a rafting team (are) you interested?'" recalls Saeed Salem, the UAE's first rafting team captain. "I told him: 'Yes, let me try...why not?'"
    Saeed Salem's team training on the Al Ain course
    Salem and his team had only ever seen one river, on a training trip to Canada two years earlier. Now they were thrust into an intensive crash course, battling the artificial elements for six hours each day for six weeks, under the guidance of experienced coach Mohammad Sharif.
    "We were shocked when we first met those guys," says Sharif. "We asked them: 'Do you know anything about rivers?' They said: 'No, this is the first time for us.'"

    Stepping up

    The November tournament in Al-Ain bought together the great champions of international rafting, but Salem struck a confident tone ahead of the race.
    "We are going to show that the UAE can do something," he said. "We didn't come for fun."
    When the crucial moment arrived, Salem's team got off to a fast start, and led going into the home stretch. But disaster struck at the final turn when they became tangled in a cluster of rocks and lost precious seconds getting free.
    In the final standings, the UAE trailed in last place. A setback, but one Salem is determined to overcome.
    "We need time and experience. I believe we need to train harder," the captain said, vowing to practice his new skills every day.
    The team members know they face a long struggle to catch up with more experienced rivals.
    But in a country that can manufacture its own geography, no impossible dream is off limits.