Saudi Arabia has a long and established history in sports. Even before it became a modern country, the people of Saudi played sports such equestrian, fencing and archery as a part of their daily lives. For more than two thousand years, parents taught their children how to do horse riding, use a sword and bow and arrow so that they could hunt and fight in family wars.
The evolution of sports in Saudi Arabia began in the 1920s when the first sports clubs came into being. 1953 to 1974 formed the second phase, and is considered the development era, which saw elementary regulations formed. The third phase started from 1974 to present day, and this the time when Saudi Arabia began to contest in competitions overseas. Since then there has been a constant effort being made by the Saudi Arabian government to encourage sports. They have invested in establishing state of the art facilities for sports, like The King Abdullah Sports City (KASC) which includes a stadium that can seat between 10,000 and 60,000 people, an indoor stadium seating 5,000, Olympic-size swimming pools, indoor and outdoor courts, playgrounds, conference halls, and sports medicine clinics. Local sports clubs are located in towns which offer a range of facilities for different sports and organize local sports events throughout the year.
The Vision 2030 document also intends to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities. They have partnered with the private sector to establish additional dedicated facilities and programs.
As one of the most popular sports in Saudi Arabia, Football attracts the most number of attendances of over 50,000 for top club and international games. The country has its own national Football team. The team known as Sogour meaning ‘The Falcons’, contends in various competitions globally, including the much touted, FIFA World Cup, the AFC Asian Nations Cup, the Gulf Cup of Nations, and the Arab Nations Cup. In the recent times, Football has been regarded as the national sport of Saudi Arabia.
Football has given opportunities to emerging talent in Saudi Arabia. One of the examples of this is of Majed Abdullah also known as the ‘The Desert Pelé.’ Highly celebrated by fans, not only in Saudi Arabia but across the Gulf, he spent the whole of his club career at Al Nassr in Riyadh which he now manages.
The team’s best performance in the FIFA World Cup was on its debut in 1994 when it qualified for the first knockout stage. Since then, the team has been ranked among the top thirty teams of the world.
The Falcons have a strong record in the Asian Cup, winning at its first attempt in 1984, and retaining the trophy in 1988. They won the tournament again in 1996, and finished as runners-up in 1992, 2000, and 2007.
Popular traditional sports have been an intrinsic part of Saudi Arabia’s culture. For instance, camel racing in Saudi Arabia is an indispensable part of their lifestyle. It is also included in Saudi Arabia’s famous festivals like the annual Al Janadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival which includes camel racing.
Various festivals like King Abdulaziz Festival Camels Competition also popularly called the Miss Camel are hugely popular in Saudi Arabia. Camels from around the country are brought to the competition for the race where the winner is awarded a handsome prize money. This year participants competed for $31 million in prizes. The festival includes initiatives to raise awareness about Camels and rejoice the regional cultural and heritage practices.
Other sports like Basketball, Cricket, Rugby and Athletics are also popular with a good number of sports clubs participating in these. The Saudi Arabian athletics team is one of the strongest sports team in the Kingdom in terms of international performance. It is well known for winning accolades internationally. It has won one silver and two bronze medals in the Olympics. It finished 13th in the medal table at the 2006 Doha Asian Games and finished seventh at the 2007 Pan Arab Games with eight gold medals, and 45 medals overall.
The region has laid special emphasis on catering to people with special needs who are interested in sports. Special needs and disabled sport is planned by the Saudi Arabian Federation for Sports for Special Needs (SAFSSN), under the General Sport Authority. It was established in 1994 and takes part in the Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa (SO MENA) program and also stands as the Saudi Paralympic Committee. The Saudi Deaf Sport Federation (SDSF) was established as a separate entity in 2003 and runs alongside the SAFSSN.
Saudi Arabia also sent players to the Paralympic Games in 1996 and has contended in all games since then. Saudi Paralympic teams have included 2-6 members and have participated in two sports — athletics and power lifting. The team won its first medals in 2008, with gold and silver in the Men’s Triple Jump — ranking the team 48th out of the 146 competing nations.
Women in Saudi Arabia also participate in sports. In fact, the Jeddah United women’s team was in Malaysia recently for a game. Moreover, the Jeddah United Sports Company, headed by Lina Almaeena is Saudi Arabia’s first local sports company. Established in 2006, it intends to encourage sports among women and youth within the framework of religion and culture by providing training and sports events. Saudi Arabia sent four women to compete as part of their team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Saudi Arabia has promoted the culture of sports among the Saudi youth to encourage them to play more and more not just represent the country globally but also maintain a balanced and a healthy life style. With such enabling steps, sports in Saudi Arabia seems to be going in the right direction.