Dubai: Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that beheld me when I walked into the lush green villa of Dr Haidar AlYousuf in Dubai. Not least a 45-minute phone conversation about the subject that I had had with the distinguished Emirati earlier.
As the main gate opened on to a narrow bridge, a splash of colour in a pond that stretched on either side below stopped me in my tracks. A darting school of fish – in a vibrant mix of red, yellow, white and black – moved in spell-binding harmony, with unmatched grace and agility.
“This is my world,” said the 48-year-old Dr AlYousuf, as he approached his precious collection of fish. Some 50 of them, all Japanese koi fish, the world’s most iconic freshwater fish. Worth millions of dirhams, they are celebrated as much for their beauty as for their symbolism - of good luck, health and fortune.
Dr AlYousuf, an acclaimed physician and former head of funding at Dubai Health Authority, has played a key role in designing and implementing mandatory health insurance in Dubai. He has also helped build AlFuttaim Health in the private sector and is currently CEO of iOHealth, a digital health innovation company.
But few know there’s another feather in his illustrious cap: His distinction as a hobbyist fishkeeper.
On January 25, Dr AlYousuf clinched a regional and UAE first after he became the first Middle Eastern judge at the coveted world championship of Koi – the All Japan Koi Show in Tokyo. A participant in the competitions since 2017, he was also the first person from the Middle East to win a major award in the show the following year with his koi water barn team.
Dr AlYousuf’s love for fish began early on. “I developed a passion for fish in general when I was 10 years old,” the father of six let on. “I remember buying a small aquarium full of fish in Sharjah. It fascinated me. Sadly, all the fish died within a week. But I was determined to get to the bottom it and learn everything there was to know about them,” he said.
With information not being readily available, he went to great lengths to procure copies of marine biology textbooks from universities in Amman and Cairo so he could learn about fish. The more he read, the more in-depth he delved.
Soon, he began acquiring more fish, and also equipped himself better to keep them.
“I learnt how to create the right filtration and oxygenation systems for them; Amazonian fish, for instance, require soft water, unlike Malawi fish which thrive in hard water. Some fish breed in rainy season in their natural habitat, so I learnt to change 20 per cent of the water with colder water to trigger rain-like conditions,” he shared.
A bright student academically, who went on to do medicine, he also made time to pursue his fishkeeping hobby. Ask him how he managed to strike a balance, and his answer is simple: “The fish give me a great sense of peace and contentment”.
He said, “I started out with the common Molly and Guppy fish; with time, the collection grew with Angel and Discus fish also coming on board. It was only eight years ago, when I was 40, that I got exposed to koi fish. My wife and I were on a visit to California when we first saw them. There has been no looking back since, as I started learning more about them and acquiring them from Japan.”
Koi fish, he said, are the ultimate reward for a fishkeeper. “Like with thoroughbred horses, the criteria on which koi fish are judged are very detailed and stringent. They are evaluated on the basis of their colour, size, body shape and patterns, with even the slightest blemish making a difference. Their value can accordingly range from $1,000 to over $6 million. Females are the prized kois, while the males only contribute to breeding,” said Dr AlYousuf.
His own personal collection, which is worth over Dh2 million today, comprises amongst others, 12 of the most highly valued Kohako Koi (red and white), three Showa Koi (white, red and black), two Tancho Koi (full on white with a red circle on the head) and one shusui Koi (orange and white fish with zipper scales on the back).
Dr AlYousuf, who also breeds koi fish, said the key challenge is to create the optimal environment for them in the hot desert conditions. As a pioneer in the field in the region, he recalled how “everyone thought it was a crazy idea” when he first came up with the proposal in Japan.
“Today, we not only keep them alive, but can grow them faster than in Japan. We took their principles of water filtration and finetuned them to suit the climate here. There’s a science to everything, from the amount of oxygen that needs to be pumped into the ponds, the circulation speed that you need to achieve or what UV systems to use,” he said.
According to him, there are 20-30 collectors of high-end koi fish in the UAE today as part of the koi water barn team.
“We are a growing community and I plan to launch the Middle East’s first Koi Fish Show very soon,” he added.
Koi Fish Facts
- Koi fish are ornamental, domesticated carp fishich thrive in fresh water
- At the hobbyists’ high end, koi fish can be highly expensive with their value running into millions of dirhams; but generally they are affordable
- Their beauty is judged by three main criteria: Body shape, pattern and colour with hundreds of sub-criteria
- Even a single blemish brings down their value
- Females are the ones in demand; males only contribute to breeding
- There are 21 varieties of koi fish
- Koi fish have six types of colour cells in their skin: Red, yellow, black, white, blue or metallic.
- Red and white koi are highly sought after as they symbolise joy and purity