A recent study by global health and fitness body IHRSA suggests that consumer awareness in the MENA region of the importance of sport and exercise has spiked in the last decade, and that 25% of the population spend three to five hours each week working out. Although the pandemic has kept a lot of that activity at home, precipitating the rise of online fitness classes such as Peloton, “going to the gym” remains a popular pastime among those living in the region’s urban centres, and the same study forecasts growth of 18% in the MENA region between now and 2025.
Going to the gym, however, includes a wide spectrum of exercise formats and cultures, from boxing and other martial arts, to personal training or group classes, to the more corporate chains of fitness clubs which offer a range of facilities. The industry has also seen diversification into adjacent or complementary fields such as leisure or lifestyle, medical and health services. Nowhere is this spectrum best illustrated than in the gym cultures and industries of Iran and the UAE.
Iran – from ancient times to modern Gyms in Iran are no modern phenomenon. The traditional zurkhaneh (literally, ‘house of strength’) – a place where men swing heavy batons and spin in a circle, training their muscles for traditional warrior-style combat – dates back to ancient Persian times and continues to this day, albeit mainly as a touristic attraction. Although the chanting of prayers, colourful costumes and devotional rituals of the zurkhaneh have faded away, the physical strength and male machismo that it engendered abides in Iran’s international prowess in disciplines requiring those attributes: sponsored by the top levels of government (specifically Sepa, the charitable foundation, or bonyad, that owns a number of the country’s top gyms, typically filled with equipment imported from Italy) Iran’s wrestlers and weightlifters compete at the highest level and are often Olympic medal contenders.
By contrast, the modern day, western-style gym (or bashgah) is a beloved destination of the Iranian middle class. Oxygen is a good example of a high-end gym chain that has expanded across Tehran. In a country where modesty (especially for women) is legally provisioned and strictly enforced, gyms typically segregate their customer according to gender: either male or female only, or a rota of women during the daytime and men early in the morning or in the evening. For women, the gym can provide a sanctuary where everyone dresses in sportswear and can socialise freely.
Keeping up appearances The aestheticism of the gym-built physique has given rise to an association with a number of other cosmetic industries that are advertised, or even provided, within the premises. “VIP” or “5 star” gyms often have relationships with clinics offering treatments such as laser hair removal, Botox and cosmetic surgery. Given that Iran has some of the best – and most reasonably-priced – plastic surgeons in the region, it has become a hub for cosmetic medical tourism, although there are concerns around the lack of industry regulation and the prevalence of unlicensed and poorly-trained practitioners.
UAE – international influences In contrast to Iran, the rise of gym culture in the UAE, a country with a more modest historic athletic tradition, has tracked with the vast influx of expatriate workers that began in the 1980s. At the time, the only opportunities to take part in sports and exercise came from members clubs which doubled as lifestyle destinations for socialisation and relaxing; very few of these clubs, once the staple of expatriate high life in the UAE, still exist, with perhaps the best-known example being The Club in Abu Dhabi, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
Subsequently, hotel chains in the UAE (as elsewhere) developed sports and exercise facilities not only for their guests but for local residents on a membership basis. More recently, as chains such as Jumeirah and Habtoor have developed properties across the emirates, guests have access to a wide range of participating properties and options – whether they are looking to swim with their families at the weekends, or a focused workout during the week. This has allowed businesses such as Privilee (“the UAE’s ultimate lifestyle membership”), to offer subscription-based access to multiple branded hotels and leisure facilities across all seven emirates.
However, the gym industry in the UAE, which has evolved quickly to cater to sophisticated customers seeking the latest fitness trends and newest technologies, remains fragmented and highly competitive, with blue-chip international chains squaring off against a kaleidoscope of boutique circuits-based and indoor cycling studios. Among the former are Fitness First, Fitness 360, and Gold’s Gym (which was founded in California in 1965, and was where Arnold Schwarzenegger sculpted himself when he first came to America), all of which now have a network of outlets in the UAE (some of them ladies-only to reflect the demands of the local market). The latter include Crank, 1Beat, F45 and Barry’s Bootcamp, each of which have their own spin on high intensity, instructor-led group activity, with or without thumping music and strobe lighting.
Gym culture in the post-pandemic era Iran and the UAE are two neighbouring countries which have starkly different athletic traditions. Their contemporary gym and exercise cultures, however, driven by sophisticated internationally focused consumers may well be converging towards a scene dominated by global fitness and lifestyle chains and boutique studios.
That said, in the post-pandemic era as online classes vie with more communal forms of exercise, it seems clear that the growing number of gym-goers and exercise-conscious consumers in the region will only have a wider array of options to choose from.
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