The idea came to us when Richard Henderson, * a 35-year-old trainer and executive for a chain of health clubs, contacted TC about the availability of Biotest products in the Middle East. TC forwarded his email to the people at Biotest who handle international accounts. That would’ve been that, if he hadn’t been curious about what Henderson does, and the exotic world in which he does it.
* “Richard Henderson” is not his real name. We agreed to use a pseudonym so we could have a frank discussion about the bodybuilding scene in the Middle East, including the parts his employers wouldn’t want to see one of their executives talking about.
Henderson was happy to talk about it, and this interview is the result.
Some background: Henderson, born and raised in the United Kingdom, was recruited several years ago by a major Middle Eastern fitness-center operation to move to Dubai and serve as their head trainer.
Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, a country that sits on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Oman. The emirate of Dubai is about the size of Rhode Island, a place with lots of sand and surprisingly little oil and natural gas.
But if you’ve heard of Dubai, it’s because of the action in the city of the same name, which rose from a Middle Eastern backwater to an international colossus in a single generation. In 1975, Dubai had 183,000 people — roughly as many as modern-day Little Rock, Arkansas. Before the recession hit the population had soared to 1.5 million, with some of the world’s most spectacular architecture and conspicuous consumption at a level that would embarrass anyone but the Arab sheiks who specialize in it.
In today’s world, the confluence of money and population growth means someone has to open and run the gyms where all those people work out. Henderson’s company opens the gyms, and his job is to make sure the members get a state-of-the-art training experience. So we were curious about how the immodest nature of bodybuilding mixes with the rigid social structures of the Muslim world.
The answer is, “surprisingly well,” although the potential for screwing up is profound. Staying fit while avoiding the pitfalls of living like a Westerner in the conservative Arab world is a job in itself, as Henderson explained in a telephone interview from Dubai.
T Nation: Where are you right now? Judging by all the horns, it sounds like you’re in Midtown Manhattan at rush hour.
It’s Thursday evening here in Dubai, and Fridays are a day off, so it’s like Friday night for Westerners. There’s normally only one day off a week here, so it can be crazy.
T Nation: People work six days a week in Dubai?
That’s right. It can be a bit of a shock. I get a two-day weekend every couple weeks, so it’s not so bad. Like most things, eventually you get used to it.
T Nation: Are those full workdays?
Oh yeah, 10- to 12-hour days are the norm. Most people are here from another country to make as much money as they can, and you hear stories all the time of foreigners working ridiculous hours to support families back home.
For example, a lot of the taxi drivers here will work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays, but once a year get a month off to go home to India or Pakistan to see their families.
T Nation: You’re out there working in the fitness field. How’s the money compared to a similar job back home?
It’s significantly higher, probably by 50 to 60 percent. Plus it’s all tax-free.
T Nation: Tax-free?
There’s no tax in Dubai, mate.
T Nation: Even if you’re a foreigner?
Not a cent. You have all this growth, all these roads and infrastructure and amazing buildings, but no tax whatsoever. And why? Cause the guys who own everything are so freaking rich, they don’t need your money. But it’s definitely not a fair and equitable system across the board.
T Nation: How so?
Let’s say you’re a European, and you work a job that pays 10,000 a month. If you’re Filipino and working the same job, you might get 6,000. An employer can even advertise for a job saying, “Wanted: female, white, 35 years old, must be this and that.”
T Nation: They can get away with that?
Sure. They can do what they want. The UAE is essentially a kingdom, and at the top of the food chain are the local Emiratis, who’re born in the UAE, with both parents born in the UAE as well. They only represent around 10 percent of the population, but they get a free house from the government when they get married, and their utilities at 50 percent.
Next down the ladder would come the Westerners from Europe, Australia, and North America, and at the bottom would be Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis.
The joke around town is if you get in a car accident with a local, it’s always your fault.
But there is massive respect for the rulers of the UAE, from the locals and foreigners alike. Their planning and development for the region is amazing. The city is so stunning and well maintained, without any of the poverty you see in other parts of the Middle East.
T Nation: So what’s life like for a Westerner in Dubai?
If you go about your business and maintain a low profile, you should have no problems. But if you flagrantly violate Islamic laws, you’re asking for it.
For example, there’s no drinking in Dubai, but because of all the Westerners here you’re allowed to drink alcohol in certain hotels. However, if you’re caught drinking or you’re intoxicated in the street, Westerner or not, you’ll be arrested and in big trouble.
Public displays of affection are also a serious taboo. Not long ago a European couple was caught having sex on the beach. They were arrested, jailed for three months, and then deported. There are a number of stories like that.
But it’s also extremely safe. They really value honesty here. If you fuck up, there are no second chances. If you steal, you’re deported the next day. Gone. So if you’re an Indian guy supporting a big family back home, you don’t want to screw up. You hear stories all the time of people forgetting bags of money in cabs and having every cent returned. People leave their keys in the ignition. They don’t even lock their doors at night. Crime is just not tolerated in Dubai. Period.
Really, as a Westerner, most of the time I forget that I’m even in the Middle East. Ninety-five percent of the people here speak English. You could go your whole life here and never have to speak Arabic.
But then there are things that snap you back into reality.
T Nation: Like what?
Nine-nine percent of the locals still wear the traditional dress — a long, white one-piece for guys and a black robe for females. Plus the call to prayer five times a day always reminds me that I’m in an Islamic country. You hear it wherever you go.
T Nation: Do people notice if you don’t stop and pray?
No. So much of the workforce in Dubai is comprised of non-Muslims. Again, it’s much different in other parts of the region.
T Nation: How is life in Dubai different from other Middle Eastern countries?
On the outside, the biggest difference is that in Dubai everything is so neat and tidy, while other parts of the Middle East are really old and run down, kind of like how Dubai was 20 years ago, before it exploded. I mean, in Dubai, if your car is over 10 years old, you can’t even register it!
It’s also pretty laid back here, comparatively speaking. In other countries, even in the other Emirates, it’s a completely different story. Most other Middle Eastern countries are way stricter with Islamic law.
T Nation: You mean places like Saudi Arabia and Iran?
I haven’t been to Saudi, but I hear that as a Westerner it just destroys you. The whole place shuts down five times a day for call to prayer. I mean, it completely shuts down. There’s nothing!
It’s also much tougher for women in the more hard-core Islamic nations. What a female can wear in Dubai would be illegal in Saudi Arabia. Hell, women in Saudi Arabia can’t even drive a car.
T Nation: After watching my wife attempt to parallel park today, I might support that.
No, seriously, it’s nuts. The company I work for had to deliver a bunch of fitness equipment to a new gym opening in Saudi Arabia. Some of the cardio equipment came in boxes that had pictures of women in sportswear working out. They had to take the stuff out of the boxes and repackage it before it could be taken out onto the street.
When you go to McDonald’s in Saudi Arabia, there are three lines: a bachelors’ line, a female-only line, and a family line. So an unmarried guy can’t go in any line but the bachelor line, and if you’re a single female you have to go in the female line. If you’re caught having lunch with a female and she’s not your wife or your sibling or sister, you’ll get arrested.
A female in Saudi Arabia can’t even travel unless she has her husband’s or brother’s or father’s permission.
And get this: Last year in Saudi Arabia, they banned the color red on Valentines Day. They felt it inspired thoughts of lust and immoral relations in unmarried people.
T Nation: They banned a freaking color?
Saudi Arabia is the strictest of the strict.
T Nation: That must be hard to get used to.
You’d better learn fast, mate. I had a colleague from Australia attempt to step into an elevator that was already occupied by a Saudi guy and his wife. The guy went nuts. He started screaming, “How dare you insult my wife! How dare you insult my family!”
T Nation: You’re head trainer for a major fitness chain. How advanced is the training out there?
It’s years behind. When I first got to Dubai, there were no Olympic bars in the gyms. Everything from dynamic warm-ups to foam rollers for myofascial release was completely foreign.
Many of the guys who work as trainers are from the Philippines or Egypt, where it seems you can get a degree in anything without too much study. For example, one guy I interviewed for a trainer position was a physiotherapist in the Philippines, yet he couldn’t even name two of the four muscles of the rotator cuff.
T Nation: Before we started the interview you mentioned working with female clients who’re 30 years old and had never caught a ball.
It’s the truth. Imagine growing up your whole life without any sporting culture. I mean, guys would maybe ride horses or play soccer. But not the girls.
Then they grow up, and so many of the women remain so inactive! Some even have maids follow them around the stores, picking up the groceries off the shelves for them, pushing the shopping cart. These are people who have literally never done anything physical in their lives, so by the time they get to me their coordination is a shambles.
T Nation: Given that the UAE is an Islamic country, can women work out with guys in the same gym?
It depends. There are a lot of ladies-only clubs, or clubs that have separate ladies-only sections. These have no male staff all. In fact, if there is any maintanence work to be done, the guys need to come in after hours to do their work.
T Nation: What’s the bodybuilding scene like in Dubai?
There isn’t that much of a bodybuilding culture in Dubai because the city is so Western-oriented and commercial. But in some of the other emirates there’s a certain level of respect for bodybuilders.
You see, because there’s no real sporting culture in the Middle East, no national sport, bodybuilding is something that has really kind of taken off. It’s not uncommon for a sheikh to sponsor a bodybuilder and pay for the guy’s lifestyle, because if the guy wins the show it’s quite a status symbol for the sheikh.
T Nation: Would a bodybuilder in a Dubai gym be looked upon as a freak, or would they be held in higher esteem?
I hired a European bloke as a trainer who was very much a bodybuilder: around 5-foot-6, 220 pounds, and in great shape. He was a little nervous people wouldn’t accept him. He wound up picking up five clients his first night on the gym floor.
T Nation: You would think that there would be contradictions between the bodybuilding lifestyle and the Islamic faith.
Well, during the holy month of Ramadan, you cannot eat or drink during daylight hours. So most of the local Muslims train at night, which means the gyms will stay open till 3 or 4 in the morning so they can train. Ramadan is no joke. If you get caught eating in public during the day, you could get arrested.
T Nation: Tell us about the steroid scene.
It’s alive and well. Most of the bodybuilders look at it as just part of the deal, like protein powder and tanning oil. One of my trainers is a bodybuilder from Jordan, and he would always talk about having to pay for his “bodybuilding medicine.”
T Nation: Where do guys get their “meds”?
You get to know the right people in the gym. A lot of doctors here are Indians and Pakistanis, and you can get hooked up if they know you. Plus, some areas are a lot more relaxed than others. You just walk in and buy it.
T Nation: Sounds pretty easy.
Yeah, and cheap. Both pharmaceutical and UGL [from underground labs] are easy to acquire.
T Nation: What about the more exotic things, like growth hormone or IGF-1?
Everything’s available. As far as that part of bodybuilding goes, it’s very advanced. There’s even a growing Synthol scene. I’ve seen an Egyptian or Iranian trainer out here with 24-inch arms. He looks ridiculous!
T Nation: Do your fellow Westerners get on the gear?
Most of the Westerners are too busy working to work out, much less get into hardcore bodybuilding. It’s mainly Filipinos, Egyptians, or the locals that are on the sauce. A lot of the Filipino trainers working here are cranked up. I’ve never seen so many big Filipino guys in my life!
T Nation: Are the sheikhs interested in the gear?
A lot of sheikhs lift, but let’s face it: usually guys gear because they want to be intimidating or get laid. A sheikh doesn’t need gear for either of those things. These guys can afford whatever they want. There are sheikhs who’ll pay supermodels $15,000 a night just to be hostesses at parties.
Can’t pimp this ride: a Mercedes with a body made of white gold.
T Nation: Are there legal repercussions from steroid use?
It’s definitely illegal, but because a lot of the cops are doing it, it’s no problem. Not that the cops are corrupt or anything. It’s just not frowned upon in the culture, so it’s no big deal.
T Nation: What about steroid dealing?
I’ve never heard of any arrests or anyone running into problems.
T Nation: Even in an Islamic country? What about penalties for recreational drugs?
Don’t even joke about that. It’s a completely different issue. We had a DJ come over to Dubai recently from the UK. He had, like, a joint in his pants. Maybe a gram in total. They gave him four years. I think a sheikh might have had him released after four months. You hear about people coming into the airports with codeine-based painkillers, and they get thrown into prison. We’re talking housewives and soccer moms.
I’ve never seen anybody or heard of anybody taking recreational drugs here. Ever. Like I said earlier, man, zero tolerance.
T Nation: Pornography?
Forget it. Get caught and you’re history. And don’t try to log onto your favorite porn site. They’re all blocked off. They even pay people to black out bikini shots in international newspapers. You know the Page Three girls in the UK papers?
T Nation: I’m not from the UK but I definitely know about Keeley Hazell.
Gone. All edited out.
T Nation: Say I want to read something like Men’s Health while I numb my ass on the stationary bike. Magazines like that often have semi-nude women.
Middle Eastern versions of magazines like that are suitably edited. And you should see the movies here! You can have all the killing and violence you want, but the second a love scene begins, zip, it’s edited out.
T Nation: Changing directions, you were saying MMA has really exploded out there as well.
It sure has. Dubai had its first MMA event a year ago. Before that people weren’t even allowed to do it. But one sheikh was an MMA fan, so now it’s exploding. If a sheikh wants something that’s against the rules, they’ll pump the money and bend the rules to do it.
For example, that sheikh who loves MMA sponsors the Abu Dhabi combat club, and it’s holding the richest submission-wrestling event of the year in April. Fedor is coming over to fight. The locals want great results from their home club, so they brought 13 Brazilian black belts over to live and train at the club.
T Nation: Can you get good-quality nutrition to support a healthy lifestyle out there?
It’s basically a desert, so everything has to be imported. Good food is expensive, and the quality is suspect. I bought some hazelnuts imported from China the other day and got really sick. I’m not sure what the hell they were sprayed with.
The meat is usually from Australia, Argentina, Brazil, or New Zealand, so that’s not too bad. But they have to bring the animals here live so they can kill them in the Islamic way. They say a prayer, cut the throat, and let the animal bleed out. Otherwise, they can’t eat the meat.
T Nation: What’s a typical breakfast in Dubai?
Maybe a sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, some yogurt. Maybe some hummus and some eggs.
T Nation: That sounds all right.
Yeah, but it’s getting more Americanized here by the day. The more people have been adopting the Western diet, the higher obesity rates have grown. I’ve seen obesity figures pushing 31 percent in some regions. It isn’t pretty.
T Nation: Can you get decent sport supplements out there?
It’s really hard to get good-quality stuff, and when you do find it, it’s usually very expensive. Dubai is extremely inefficient in that regard. Anything to do with government or import-export is incredibly difficult.
T Nation: How have things changed with the economic crisis? I imagine a development-centered economy like Dubai’s would get hit hard.
I’ve heard stories of 150,000 to 250,000 leaving just since December. Everyone says something different, so I don’t know the exact numbers. Three thousand cars have been left at Dubai airport by people who lost their jobs and either can’t sell their cars or owe money and are just ditching the cars when they fly out.
Day to day, if your job is safe, then [the meltdown] is great news. House prices and rents have fallen by 20 to 25 percent.
T Nation: So are you staying out there, or do you have plans to head back to the UK?
Despite the money, I really don’t think I could stay here and raise a family. It’s so bloody hot here — 55 degrees Celsius [131 degrees Fahrenheit] in the summer!
I’m a foreigner here. No matter how long I stay, I’ll always be a foreigner. At some point, I’ll just have to go home.
T Nation: Thanks for your time, Rich. It’s enlightening for those of us who’ll never see that part of the world.
Anytime, mate. Say hello to everyone out there at Testosterone Muscle.