To beat high obesity rates, Saudi Arabia pushes to promote fitness, active lifestyles

Saudi gym owner Halah Alhamrani, 41, trains in her gym centre in the coastal city of Jeddah on February 19, 2018. (AFP)
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Updated 10 August 2022

To beat high obesity rates, Saudi Arabia pushes to promote fitness, active lifestyles

  • Obesity and related health implications cost Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone
  • According to the World Health Organization, obesity is more prevalent among women than men

JEDDAH: Obesity rates worldwide have been steadily rising over the past half-century, reaching a point at which experts say many nations are way off schedule to meet the World Health Organization’s 2025 global nutrition targets.

Mindful of the pressures that high obesity rates place on local healthcare systems, to the detriment of quality of life, countries such as Saudi Arabia are working hard to promote fitness and challenge people to change their sedentary lifestyles.

According to a recent study by Ohio State University College of Medicine, obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, equivalent to about 4.3 percent of the Kingdom’s total annual health expenditure.




Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. (AFP)

Excess weight and obesity — defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that can impair health — is not only a concern in the Arab world. More than a billion people worldwide are classified as obese, which means that they have a body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) of 30 or higher, and the number is rising.

According to the WHO, obesity is more prevalent among women than men, with factors such as sociocultural issues, economics, genetics and biology all contributing factors. Worldwide, obesity affects 15 percent of women and 11 percent of men. In the Middle East and North Africa, this gender gap is even wider, with 26 percent of women classified as obese compared with 16 percent of men.

A recent article published by The Economist attributes the problem in the region to two key factors: Socioeconomics, on the grounds that the cheapest local foods are usually the most unhealthy, such as bread and rice; and culture, on the grounds that pervasive social conservatism in the Arab region can prevent women from participating in outdoor exercise or shedding calories passively in the workplace.

The reality is, of course, more complex than that. The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated as women in the region increasingly enter the labor force, take charge of their diets, and seize new opportunities in the worlds of sports and fitness.




Obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone. (AFP)

Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. Arab countries, too, have experienced significant lifestyle changes and rapid urbanization that have introduced many additional high-fat foods to the market alongside the preexisting unhealthy eating habits, including the traditionally carbohydrate-rich Arab diet.

Nations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia, have not been immune to such changes. Obesity levels have soared in recent decades owing to a mix of unhealthy eating, inactivity and keeping “fat in fashion” — a stereotype associated with Gulf countries on account of their affluence.

Globally, the perception of obesity varies widely. In many high-income and, increasingly, middle-income countries, weight gain carries a social stigma that fuels a perception of individual weakness that undermines the support for comprehensive prevention, treatment and management measures.

Different ideals associated with weight and body shape can found in various cultures. Specific cultural pressures to be tall and thin are postulated to cause people to misreport their height and body weight in an attempt to appear what is deemed more socially popular and desirable.

A similar situation exists in some places in terms of attitudes to excess weight. Many African and Polynesian, and some Arab, cultures associate overweight women with affluence, health, strength and fertility. In the Gulf region at least, however, being fat is certainly no longer in fashion.

Sulafa Kurdi, a photographer and cafe owner, has been overweight almost all of her life. In August 2020, she took the first steps on a nearly two-year journey to get fit and healthy by signing up with a gym. She chose Sweat Army in Jeddah and began her transformation.

“I was waiting for the right time to make the move and turn my life around,” she told Arab News. “Breaking down that wall was tough but, with the support I received from my coach, the journey was what I needed. I wanted to lose weight the healthy way, the right way and the difficult way.

“Within three months of signing up, I found the discipline to maintain a healthy lifestyle that I still stick to as best as I can. Yes, we all fall off the wagon and feel sluggish at times. With the right support, I’ve managed to get back again and move, breaking my own records.”

FASTFACT

• Obesity is closely linked to chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

• Excess weight and the associated health implications cost the Saudi health system $3.8bn in 2019.

Indeed, contrary to the assertions in The Economist’s article, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more women in the Arab world are taking control of their physical lives and setting off on a journey to improved their fitness. This has in turn motivated many to pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes.

Studies have found that engagement in sports and physical activity has been lower among women than men. Now various government-led and private programs are providing women and girls with access to sports facilities, encouraging them to become athletes and even role models for younger generations.

This has challenged outdated stereotypes about women in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab region and the incorrect notions about social conservatism preventing them from going outdoors both to exercise and to take part in organized sports.

Dubbed “Cleopatra Squash,” Egyptian Nuran Johar has won padel tournaments such as the England Open Junior Championship five times. Meanwhile, Ulfah Alkaabi, one of the UAE’s top padel players, has been making her mark on the court.

Halfway around the world, Saudi Arabia’s female national football team won a silver medal at the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Detroit, Michigan this month.

Although Saudi sprinter and first-time Olympian Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh fell short in her first race in Tokyo 2020, she has set her sights on bringing home a medal from the next Games in Paris in 2024.

By all accounts, women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. In the Kingdom, the Sports For All Federation has been building community-driven programs to improve overall health through community sports programs, a powerful tool to create a healthy society in line with the Vision 2030 Quality of Life objectives.
 




The Saudi female athletes leading the way. 

SFA says its programs and initiatives are created based on a community’s specific needs and what motivates them, and can be incorporated easily into their daily routines such as walking, running, cycling and other activities. It says the number of female participants in community sports has increased dramatically.

“Since 2018, we’ve seen the numbers reflected across our programs,” an SFA spokesperson told Arab News. “SFA wants to provide women with the right programs and female-driven initiatives to encourage them to go further.

“We provided a special course for ladies in our Spartan race, there was an area for women at SandClash to compete, and the same goes for our Neighborhood Clubs across the Kingdom for women who prefer to have their own spaces.




Women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. (AFP)

“SFA has also hosted the Global Goals World Cup, a five-a-side women’s football tournament, and is the first country to add basketball to the games. One of the main objectives of SFA is to enable them, provide them with access to facilities, motivate them and feel that they are part of the community.”

Underscoring the importance of community-based physical activity programs, Haya Sawan, a fitness trainer and the owner of SheFit Gym in Jeddah, told Arab News that having such programs is helping to build a strong fitness culture among women.

“There’s been a huge jump in the past five years and you can see more people engaged in some sort of physical activity than ever before. It’s not just a matter of gyms opening, it’s more about changing the mindset and changing the lifestyle,” said Sawan.

“The region’s climate and unique environment restrict us from walking for miles, so we need to put in extra effort just to stay active all day. We utilize the space that we have and create programs fitting for the space, and using vast spaces such as malls and outdoor pathways designated for walking or jogging is a great way to engage the public.

“Initiatives such as the ones launched by SFA where they cooperated with malls makes it so much easier for people to be active. It’s accessible and you can count your steps. It’s a small gesture that makes a difference in the long run.”

That said, personal motivation remains an integral part of any fitness journey, and changing perceptions among Arab women — and wider society — about their role, status and body autonomy no doubt has a part to play.

“I am a strong believer that your thoughts can really control your life,” said Sawan. “A positive mindset will always believe that there’s room for improvement, and look at challenges as a source of motivation to overcome, rather than challenges that would stop you from moving forward. Everything changes.”


What We Are Buying Today: Spanish designer Belen Mancha’s abayas, thobes combine modern style with vintage crochet

Updated 23 September 2022

What We Are Buying Today: Spanish designer Belen Mancha’s abayas, thobes combine modern style with vintage crochet

Thaa, a Saudi brand born in 2016 with an occidental influence, creates statement abayas and thobes. Using a mix of local and imported textiles, carefully crafted products are created by hand, using different techniques, one of the most distinguished being crochet.

Every season they release new styles as well as a classic linen crochet abaya that has become the brand’s signature. Every piece is made with love for the clients who appreciate and understand the work behind it.

Founder Belen Hernandez-Mancha, a Spanish designer who married a Saudi man, began to experiment with the abundant array of textiles, designs and patterns in the Kingdom. Being surrounded by art and talents within her family sparked the right moment for her to follow her dreams.

Since then her approach has been to cater to sophisticated customers who are trendy with refined taste. The re-emergence of crochet has been one of the best fashion trends this year.

Taking a modern look on a vintage classic crochet pattern, the Thaa abayas are designed to create unique, timeless pieces.

A hand-crocheted abaya features various organic shapes and a flowy design made of lightweight material.

“We will continue to create with passion and service our circle of clientele with a devoted attention to meet each client’s satisfaction, always paying attention to every detail from the design itself to the packaging and service offered,” said Hernandez-Mancha.

You can find Thaa apparel at Homegrown market in Jeddah, Mira Y Mano store in Riyadh and RAYA galleria in Alkhobar.

For more information, visit @thaa_ksa on Instagram.

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What We Are Eating Today: The vibes are to dine for at Riyadh’s lively Latin restaurant Hotel Cartagena

Updated 16 September 2022

What We Are Eating Today: The vibes are to dine for at Riyadh’s lively Latin restaurant Hotel Cartagena

RIYADH: Hotel Cartagena in Riyadh, despite its name, is a Latin American restaurant — but the impressive vibes will have you wishing they had a room for you to stay in.

Entering the restaurant venue is a rainforest experience, with its plants, flowers, funky wallpaper, bird decor and vibrant aesthetics of a rustic hotel in the Amazon. Featuring various performances throughout the week, including live DJ sets, singers and bands, Hotel Cartagena brings a taste of spicy Latin entertainment to Saudi Arabia.

The joint also hosts trivia nights and weekend brunches, and almost every hour, the staff breaks out in a dance sequence with music mixes blasting, encouraging guests to join along — and they often do.

There is truly no dull moment here, especially with staff bringing a fire and dance show to every customer’s table who orders their most popular dish, the Coffee Aged Tomahawk Steak. The downside to this level of showmanship, however, is that the food can sometimes take a back seat. The steak isn’t always cooked properly, and the coffee rub might not have broad appeal. The order can either be made with Wagyu beef or US prime, both of which are arguably overpriced for a single order.

Some of their popular Latin delicacies include their classic fish ceviche, crispy duck confit salad, chili prawn nachos, and ropa vieja empanadas. Must-try sides are their sweet potato fries and creamy congri, which is a version of classic Cuban rice and beans.

Diners can enjoy refreshing mocktails, most notably the sweet and spicy Flor de Jalisco and the sweet and sour Mai Gai.

We wouldn’t recommend this spot as a vegetarian-friendly joint, as they don’t offer vegan or vegetarian dishes aside from their selection of salads and bites.


Milan design school Istituto Marangoni arrives in Dubai

Updated 14 September 2022

Milan design school Istituto Marangoni arrives in Dubai

  • The landmark event at the Museum of the Future combined a traditional physical fashion show with a complementary digital version in the metaverse
  • ‘Istituto Marangoni’s Dubai branch is a valuable addition to the city’s rapidly developing creative and cultural landscape,’ said Sheikha Latifa

DUBAI: Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al-Maktoum, chairperson of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and a member of the Dubai Council, was among the guests of honor at a landmark fashion show that marked the Middle East debut of Italian fashion and design school Istituto Marangoni, the Emirates News Agency reported.

The concept for the event combined a traditional physical fashion show at the Museum of the Future in Dubai with a complementary digital version in the metaverse. Models appeared on the real-world catwalk alongside their virtual avatars, creating a unique event that blended tradition with innovation in a world where reality and virtual reality coexist.

The event showcased the work of five top graduates of Istituto Marangoni’s fashion-design courses in Milan, Florence, Paris, London and Shanghai. The grand finale featured designs by Rahul Mishra, a well-known alum who was the first Indian designer to show his work at Paris Haute Couture Week.

In Dubai he paid tribute to his alma mater with creations that combine traditional Indian designs with modern luxury fashion trends in a sustainable, ethical, “slow fashion” approach.

Sheikha Latifa said: “Istituto Marangoni’s Dubai branch is a valuable addition to the city’s rapidly developing creative and cultural landscape. Its diverse offering will provide creatives in Dubai and the region with the right tools to launch their design careers.”

She added that Dubai has cemented its position as a global design hub, one of the primary goals of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum’s Dubai Creative Economy Strategy, which was launched last year.

As part of that strategy, Dubai Culture is working to strengthen education in the creative arts and, as a result, support the emergence and development of creative talents while establishing an ecosystem of creators in the emirate.

“Bringing global institutions with decades of experience in the field of design to the region reinforces our commitment to the sector and to being a cultural and creative hub,” Sheikha Latifa said. “We look forward to the incredible talent that will graduate from (Istituto Marangoni Dubai) in the coming years.”

Noura Al-Kaabi, minister of culture and youth, said: “It gives me great joy to welcome a globally renowned fashion and design school to Dubai. I see a great partnership in the making, where the UAE and other MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries will have the advantage of a world-class design school, while Istituto Marangoni will benefit from the untapped talent waiting to be harnessed.

“The UAE is making waves in the creative space and building an ecosystem for future generations to contribute effectively to the creative economy. We are focusing on developing our cultural and creative industries to make them a more significant part of the UAE’s economy.

“We believe nurturing talent is critical to developing the creative sector and Istituto Marangoni will play an important role in achieving that. Imparting world-class education and specialized skills to our youth will boost their creative energy and support emerging talent.”

Stefania Valenti, the managing director of Istituto Marangoni, said: “It’s an honor to celebrate the opening of Istituto Marangoni Dubai at the Museum of the Future with the warm endorsement of Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum and Her Excellency Noura bint Mohammed Al-Kaabi, and in this museum where our immersive experience found its perfect space.”

Dubai is the latest addition to the ranks of global fashion capitals that host an Istituto Marangoni school, including Milan, Florence, Paris, London, Mumbai, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Miami.

Valenti said that with the help of qualified, professional staff from Italy and an innovative “learning by doing” approach, students at Istituto Marangoni Dubai will develop the skills they need to realize their potential and turn their passion and talent into a successful career.

“Today’s event showcases what Istituto Marangoni students can achieve,” she added. “With the opening of our school in Dubai, we are offering local aspiring fashion and interior designers the opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge required to kick-start their careers.

“Istituto Marangoni is committed to playing an active role in the Middle East to encourage a new ecosystem of talent, institutions, stakeholders and industries. We hope to contribute to fostering a new generation of fashion designers in the region, with special attention to empowering women in their aspirational field of interest, be it fashion, design or arts.”


French cinema giant Jean-Luc Godard dies aged 91

Updated 13 September 2022

French cinema giant Jean-Luc Godard dies aged 91

  • The legendary maverick blew up the conventions of cinema in the 1960s
  • The secrecy -- and choosing to disappear in a puff of smoke -- is typical of Godard

ROLLE, Switzerland: Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century and the father of the French New Wave, died “peacefully at home” on Tuesday aged 91, his family said.
The legendary maverick blew up the conventions of cinema in the 1960s, shooting his gangster romance “Breathless” on the streets of Paris with a hand-held camera, using a shopping trolley for panning shots.
He continued to thumb his nose at Hollywood and an older generation of French filmmakers by breaking all the rules again in “Contempt” (1963) with Brigitte Bardot and “Pierrot le Fou” in 1965.
“No official (funeral) ceremony will take place,” his family said. “He will be cremated... And it really must happen in private.”
The secrecy — and choosing to disappear in a puff of smoke — is typical of Godard, who loved to surprise the world from his lair in the Swiss village of Rolle where he lived as a virtual recluse for decades.
It was there that he died “peacefully at home,” his wife Anne-Marie Mieville at his side, his producers said.
Godard’s influence is hard to underestimate, with directors from Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson to Robert Altman, the maker of “M*A*S*H” and “The Player,” often speaking of their debt to him.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the director’s talent and mourned the loss of a “national treasure.”
“Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic filmmaker of the New Wave, invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art. We have lost a national treasure, a genius,” Macron tweeted.
Godard’s house, with green shutters and a green bench out front, looked empty on Tuesday, its shades drawn, with an abandoned ashtray and teapot on the windowsill, an AFP reporter said.
Despite the filmmaker’s often difficult relationship with critics, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw heaped praise on Godard, saying, “The last great 20th-century modernist is dead.”
He compared him to other 1960s rebels like John Lennon and Che Guevara.
“Or maybe Godard was the medium’s Socrates, believing that an unexamined cinema was not worth having,” he added.
Guy Lodge, of the screen bible Variety, tweeted that it was “glib to say ‘he changed everything’, but he sure changed a hell of a lot of things.”
Indeed, Godard became a “god” to many 1960s political and artistic radicals who would hang on every word of his often contradictory — and tongue-in-cheek — declarations on the state of cinema and the world.
“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” he once proclaimed, in a nod to US actress Jean Seberg, the star of “Breathless.”
The movie was a fashion as well as a film landmark, her pixie haircut copied by millions bowled over by her effortless Parisian cool.
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end — but not necessarily in that order,” Godard later famously declared, and “every edit is a lie.”
As he grew older, Godard would occasionally emerge from his Swiss bolthole to make low-budget films well into his 80s.
He never, however, regained the capacity to shock or move more mainstream audiences as he had in the 1960s, though a small band of disciples remained doggedly loyal to the master.
His periodic appearances at the Cannes film festival — often via FaceTime — still drew crowds, however, though he no longer held the sway he did when he had managed to shut down the festival entirely in 1968 in solidarity with the student protests in Paris.
Cannes also saw the premiere in 2017 of “Redoubtable,” a tragi-comic film about Godard’s doomed romance with the French actress Anne Wiazemsky, directed by the Oscar-winning director of “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius.


Julianne Moore leads red carpet protest for jailed Iranian filmmaker

Updated 09 September 2022

Julianne Moore leads red carpet protest for jailed Iranian filmmaker

  • Panahi was jailed in July along with two other filmmakers in the latest crackdown on Iranian civil society
  • Moore was joined for the protest by dozens of other artists, including British director Sally Potter and France's Audrey Diwan

VENICE, Italy: Julianne Moore led a flash-mob protest on the Venice red carpet on Friday in support of filmmakers detained around the world, as the festival premiered the new movie from imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi.
Panahi, who won the top prize Golden Lion in Venice in 2000, was jailed in July along with two other filmmakers in the latest crackdown on Iranian civil society.
Moore, who is leading the jury at this year’s festival, was joined for the protest by dozens of other artists, including British director Sally Potter and last year’s Golden Lion winner, France’s Audrey Diwan.
They held posters that also highlighted the detention of Myanmar filmmaker Ma Aeint and Turkish producer Cigdem Mater.
Despite years of attempts to silence him, Panahi’s new film “No Bears” shows that he has lost none of his searing political critique and wry sense of humor.
The film is partly focused on Iranians in Turkey, trying desperately to emigrate to Europe.
But it also follows Panahi himself in a fictionalized version of his real life, as he struggles to make the film from across the border in Iran, which he was already banned from leaving.
One of the film’s stars, Mina Kavani, told reporters in Venice she was inspired by his focus, despite having to direct by phone and Internet.
“He was in such concentration, he had such perfectionism — as an actress, I couldn’t let myself get sentimental,” said Kavani, who lives in exile in France.
“All that counted for him was cinema. He just wanted to make his movie. I thought: ‘I know now why he’s Mr.Panahi.’“
In 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison for “propaganda against the system” following his support for anti-government protests.
As can often happen in Iran, the sentence was never carried out but hung over him — and was only enacted in July when he went to enquire about two other filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, who had just been arrested.
Panahi and Rasoulof issued a defiant statement via the Venice organizers last week, vowing to continue making art.
“The history of Iranian cinema witnesses the constant and active presence of independent directors who have struggled to push back censorship and to ensure the survival of this art,” they wrote.
Panahi has won the top prizes in Venice (for 2000’s “The Circle“) and Berlin (2015’s “Taxi“), as well as best screenplay at Cannes (2018’s “Three Faces“) — but was unable to accept either of the last two prizes in person.
The crackdown on civil society has worsened even further under President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultra-conservative former judiciary chief who came to power last year.
Yet Iran’s independent filmmakers continue to punch above their weight, in spite of the pressure.
A second Iranian film is competing for the Golden Lion this week — “Beyond the Walls” by Vahid Jalivand — a grim look at Iran’s security state and those trapped within it.
Jalivand was cautious in his words at a press conference on Thursday, saying “a balance between the two sides” was needed in Iran today.
“In this movie the hero of the movie is a security official himself. We have unfortunately reached a perspective where it is totally bipolar,” he told reporters.
“If we can create the sense of brotherhood, dialogue will become much easier, there will be less violence. This is my true belief and I would still believe this even if I were living in Europe or the United States.”

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