by Jessica Michault
  • 14 minute read
  • June 19, 2024
Villa 88’s cover star Safa Taryam on the future of sport in the UAE

When Safa Taryam walked on set for this issue’s cover shoot it was impossible not to notice her. But it wasn’t her flowing ink black mane of hair, her large expressive eyes or her petite frame that garnered the attention. It was the palpable energy – a vibrant strength of character, mission-focused attitude and desire to always do her best; while supporting others to reach their goals – that radiated from her. She clearly had things to do, and every second counts when your job is to help others follow their dreams.

“It’s true, I’m pint-sized,” says Safa with a broad smile. “My friends from the French schools used to call me porte clé (keychain) growing up.”

But what Safa might be lacking in stature she certainly makes up for with determination and drive. The youngest of five siblings, she grew up in a household that modelled hard work, gave back to the community and encouraged a good dose of sportsmanlike competition. 

“I’ve always been somewhat athletic and I was interested in sport from a very, very young age. The school we attended in Sharjah had great athletic programmes, so we always competed in different sports. We had a really good upbringing when it comes to being athletic,” shares Safa. “I played all kinds of sport, because back then, everybody else in school was my height. So it was a lot easier to compete. But then the older I got… well everybody else kept growing and I pretty much stayed the same height since seventh grade,” she adds with a rueful laugh. 

Safa wears a wool high neck sweater, a cotton knit scale midi skirt and a sterling silver collar necklace, all Bottega Veneta

Interestingly, there wasn’t one particular sport that Safa wanted to focus on as a kid, she tried her hand at a myriad of different activities. In fact, what primarily draws her to sport isn’t the unique bond that competing as a team can create, or the natural endorphin high that comes while exercising, which can relieve stress and bring about a sense of well-being. Fundamentally, it boils down to the spirit of competition that Safa loves most. “I think at the core of it, I’m just a very competitive person. I want to be extremely good in anything that I do,” admits the CEO. “I always want to be the most prepared and I never do anything halfway. I think the competitive nature of sport is what really kept me going at it.”

So Safa might not be the tallest or the fastest, but she argues that no one could ever say she didn’t work the hardest every time she stepped onto the court. A real “Rudy” if you will (and if you don’t get that reference it’s worth checking out the namesake film), Safa ended up channelling all that competitive drive into her career – and becoming a diehard football fan, much like her two brothers. 

Safa wears an optical crinkle cotton check long-sleeve shirt, dress and skirt with polished Tex boots, a gold finish sterling silver sculptural ring and yellow gold sterling silver hoop earrings, all Bottega Veneta

But Safa’s path to her current role as Chief Executive Officer of Elite Sport UAE – a federal government entity that is responsible for high-performance sports initiatives and the development of the UAE’s elite athletes at the highest level of sports competition around the world (think the Olympics, Asian Games, World Cups) – wasn’t a straight one. For the first decade of her career, after graduating from the American University of Sharjah with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing and Management, she got a job in the Dubai government at a company that would eventually be known as Dubai Holding. 

Emirates Towers became her home away from home as she helped the company with its business services across multiple industries. “This was pre-2008, and at that time you really had the chance to have your fingers in so many different pies. It was a huge opportunity to gather so much knowledge and experience in everything from marketing to project management to procurement – you just got to do it all,” explains Safa of those heady early years in her career. 

But after  several years with Dubai Holding, Safa felt it was time to challenge herself again by harnessing her well-earned business acumen for a field that was still in its relative infancy in the UAE, one that she not only saw huge growth potential but also dovetailed with her unwavering passion for sport. So in 2009 through a contact at Abu Dhabi Media Network, she found herself working at the company at something of a watershed sport moment for the UAE. 

Safa wears a long-sleeve denim shirt, a leopard print midi skirt and matching trousers, polished Tex mule pumps, a Watch buckle belt and gold sterling silver enamel hoop earrings, all Bottega Veneta

The network had just bought the TV rights to broadcast the prestigious English Premier League and at about the same time His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE became the owner of the famous Manchester City football team. It was a one-two punch that generated a newfound excitement about football, and sport in general, that hadn’t really been felt in the UAE to that degree before. “There was such a buzz,” remembers Safa, “the whole country is super patriotic and wanted to support that team.” Those two moves created an opening for her to step into and flex her well-honed marketing skills, “I thought to myself if I can market a plot of land, how different can it be to market a football match? At the end of the day if you understand what the product is, and I know football, it’s pretty straightforward,” reflects Safa. 

Her two years at Abu Dhabi Media Network were Safa’s ticket to step behind the curtain and discover up close the global business that powers the sports industry. She was able to learn about sponsorship deals, the importance of clubs, the tournaments, the players and most crucially she realised that she had finally found a way to blend her passion for sport with a fulfilling career. 

“Being the competitive perfectionist that I am, I said to myself at the time, ‘If I’m gonna do this, let me do it right.’ So I handed in my resignation and decided to move to Europe to learn about this industry from the experts, and Switzerland is pretty much the capital of all the international sports federations, like the IOC or FIFA,” explains Safa. 

Safa wears a Nappa leather jacket, a wool knit long-sleeve polo, wool shorts, gold sterling silver enamel hoop earrings and bracelet, all Bottega Veneta

In Neuchâtel, Switzerland she entered a year-long programme to earn a Master’s in Management, Law and Humanities of Sport from the Centre International d’etude du Sport. During that time she learned about the vast history of sport, the fundamentals of the business of sport and – what Safa found the most fascinating and eventually useful in her current position – sport law. It was while she was presenting her final thesis project to a panel of leaders from the sports industry that Safa was immediately offered a position (one of only three people in her entire promotion) to join FIFA. She would spend the next four years in Switzerland at the “Home of Football” headquarters.

By the end of her tenure at FIFA, dealing with both marketing rights management and broadcast rights for the organisation, Safa had worked on seven different football World Cups, everything from the under-17 men and women’s competitions to the famed World Cup known the world over. “I spent a lot of time with my nose in contracts,” remembers Safa. “But by nature, I love the details. Like when I buy a blender I’ll read the instruction manual cover to cover. That’s just the way I am.” 

Eventually, Safa came to the decision that she wanted to take the fundamentals of creating world sporting events that she had learned during her time at FIFA and bring them back to the UAE. And as luck would have it Safa returned home at a time when the nation had made a shift in relationship to its approach towards the industry of sport across the board. 

Safa wears a wool felt long double-breasted coat, a striped rib knit dress, polished Tex mule pumps, white enamel 18k gold-finish sterling silver earrings, a watch buckle belt and Maxi Cabat bag, all Bottega Veneta

“I could see that there was a lot more attention from the government and leadership regarding sport in general in the UAE. Not just in terms of hosting really big tournaments, but also putting more emphasis on adding a variety of sport in schools and building more infrastructure to support different sorts of sport, from padel courts to running tracks and bicycle lanes,” says Safa. 

But perhaps most importantly, for a country that has only been in existence for 53 years, the UAE has now made a concerted effort to back its native athletes in a way that makes it possible for them to choose to dedicate their lives to becoming the best in their field, rather than a side hustle sport they maintain while working full time. This is where Safa and Elite Sport UAE have been instrumental. The entity works in tandem with different sporting federations to work hand in hand with the country’s elite athletes facilitating, for example, their access to the best international training facilities, helping them to develop specialised and targeted programmes to increase their rankings and even secure funding or sponsorship. 

With the Olympics just around the corner, Safa knows that all eyes are currently on the world of sport and she feels it’s the perfect event to highlight the potential and the power of sport and supporting homegrown elite athletes. “I always try to remind people that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a long journey,” says Safa about the UAE’s road to top rankings in different fields of sport.

Safa wears a light Nappa leather shirt, with a light Nappa leather skirt, a matching drawstring pouch Dustbag and gold-finish sterling silver sculptural ring and yellow gold sterling silver hoop earrings, all Bottega Veneta

”You’re talking about three or four Olympic cycles of continuous training and competitions before they get to actually compete at the Olympics. So we have to start spotting natural talent when the athletes are young, help them develop their skills, and get them into training programs. You might start off with a thousand athletes and then ten years later with five hundred and then ten years after that, if you are fortunate, a hundred. Finally, when is the prime time for them to compete at the highest level, you’re lucky if you have five that make the cut,” she explains in detail.

But Safa is confident in the athletic future of the UAE. She looks at Belgium as an example of another relatively small in size country that has done rather well on the global sports stage. “They started focusing on sport years ago and are now seeing the results of that groundwork, so we need to begin doing the same thing,” says Safa. “But you can’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to it. You really have to understand what your strengths are and where you have opportunities for improvement, and then kind of tackle them one by one. You have to prioritise because you can’t do everything, all at once.” 

Safa is impressed with the UAE’s presence at the upcoming Olympics in Paris. She points out that the country has more athletes competing this year than they did at the last games, which she already sees as a big win –  but also an indication that things are moving in the right direction for the future. “Everybody’s super willing to put in the effort, the government understands what needs to be done. Now, it’s just a matter of organising it, and making sure that we’re effectively and efficiently executing the plans. Let’s talk again when we get to Brisbane, Australia in 2032,” she says with confidence.

Safa wears a multicolour wool loopy striped knit dress paired with a sculptural gold-finish sterling silver ring and white enamel 18k gold finish sterling silver earrings, all Bottega Veneta

At this point in her career, Safa has hit the 20-year benchmark of her professional life. So the topic of being a mentor for other young women naturally comes up. But instead of discussing how she hopes to advise and support others, Safa wants to talk about her own mentor and the woman who continues to inspire her every day – her mother, HE Dr Moza Al Shehhi.

“I couldn’t do this interview without mentioning my mum,” says Safa. “She has been my lifelong role model. But not just me… for thousands of women in the UAE because of her job as the Vice Chancellor at the American University of Sharjah. She literally helped raise and form the minds of thousands and thousands of young ladies through her work.”

Growing up Safa had a ringside seat to watch her mother take on the world and follow her dreams. With the unwavering support of her husband, the now-retired Police Brigadier General Dr Mohammed Omran Taryam, Dr Moza had four children in quick succession in her early twenties, with Safa “the cherry on top” arriving four years later. But even then, in the 1970s, Dr Moza was working in the Ministry of Education as a maths teacher, while simultaneously raising her young family and studying to get higher education degrees, eventually earning a PhD in Demography and Statistics. 

Safa wears a single-breasted leather Intrecciato coat, an Andiamo long clutch and a sculptural gold-finish sterling silver ring, all Bottega Veneta

“It took her seven years to get her PhD because English wasn’t her first language, but she was determined to write her thesis without relying on anybody else. I still remember all five of us kids sitting at the dining room table and we would be doing our homework and my mom was right there with us, working on her thesis,” recalls Safa with pride in her voice.

Eventually, Dr. Moza was called out of retirement to take up the role of Vice Chancellor at the American University of Sharjah when the school opened, a job she would have for over two decades. Years later, Safa recounts, her mother would be called out of retirement for a second time when His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, member of the Federal Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, appointed her as a member of the Federal National Council. “At her age, with everything that she has done, to get a call like that from the Sheikh of your Emirate, to be recognised that you still have so much to offer this country and its population… I am just so proud of her,” says Safa. “You can’t help but look up to her and want to be like her.”

Today, Safa finds herself also paying it forward, but in more subtle ways. “I do love talking with younger women or athletes and, when they ask about what I do, I walk them through how I got to where I am today, the steps to take. For me my silver lining, on both my good and bad days, is that I get to support others in achieving their goals and dreams, that’s such a beautiful feeling,” she admits.

Safa wears a light Nappa leather shirt, with a light Nappa leather skirt, a matching drawstring pouch Dustbag and gold-finish sterling silver sculptural ring and yellow gold sterling silver hoop earrings, all Bottega Veneta

Looking towards the future, Safa hopes that soon the world of sport will be filled with more women in leadership positions. “I do see more and more of my peers being female. We have amazing female presidents of Federations and they’re all extremely intelligent, capable women,” she shares. But, Safa admits, there have been times when she would find herself to be the only female in the department she was in while working in Europe. “But in the UAE the leadership has been extremely supportive of women in the workplace – giving equal opportunities to both genders. So that has never been an issue here. And I’m so thankful for that, because I’ll be honest with you, in many places, it’s not the same,” confesses Safa.

What is certain is that Safa still has much she wants to prove – to herself and the world. With her role as CEO of Elite Sport UAE Safa hopes that she can continue to lead by example, follow in the footsteps of her mother, and help the UAE become an even bigger contender on the global sports stage. 

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