Saudi Arabia factfile
Sports - traditional and modern
Sport has always played an important part in Saudi Arabian life.
Today traditional sports are still practiced enthusiastically, but along side them new popular international sports are also enjoyed. The facilities for sports - from athletics to football - are world class and young people are encouraged through training programmes and summer camps to enjoy all aspects of sport, both taking part and supporting their friends.
In the past horses and camels were an important part of everyday life. People relied on them for transport when there was no other method of crossing the sand. A person's life could depend on the stamina or speed of their animal. Naturally owners of particularly fine animals were very proud of them and from this there developed a desire to prove who owned the best, so racing camels and horses became a popular way to show what they could do.
Among the beduoin long distance camel races are organised across vast tracts of desert. Involving thousands of camels, theses races are a spectacular sight. Urged on by cheering spectators, often racing alongside the riders in four-wheel drive trucks and cars, the excitement mounts as the finish line approaches. A winning camel can be worth many thousands of riyals to its owner as well as gaining the prestige of riding and training the winner. In Riyadh regular camel races continue to be held at the King Fahd International Stadium during winter months. Competition between the camel owners is intense and at large meetings camels from other Gulf countries will be brought by road, or even air, to challenge each other. Huge prizes of cars or money reward the winner. No betting is allowed at the track as this is prohibited in Islam.
Camel races are a test of endurance. The track is oval shaped and races are usually between 10 to 14 kilometres.
Before a race, camels are gathered together in huge pens where they are sorted into different categories - male, female, and age being some of the important criteria. Owners and trainers will have exercised the camels every day for weeks before a race to ensure its good condition. Racing camels are also fed a special rich diet to build up their muscle, but for a few days before each race they are given little food as it is felt they perform better on an empty stomach.
The annual King's Camel Race, started in 1974, has become one of the world's largest camel races. More than 2,000 camels and their riders compete and between 20,000 - 30,000 spectators come to enjoy the sight. Another important gathering is the National Heritage and Culture Festival at Janadriyah held every February.
Another sport which has a history going back hundreds of years is the art of Falconry.
Originally falcons and saluki dogs were hunted together to supplement the poor diet of the desert people. Falcons arrived in Saudi Arabia when they were on their migration route in the winter months. They were trapped, and trained to hunt. At the end of the season, the falcons were released again as there wasn't any opportunity for hunting in the hot Saudi Arabian summers.
Training a falcon to hunt is a time-consuming business. The falconer must "man" the falcon, which means she must become tame. (All falcons, whether they are male or female, are referred to as 'her'). The falconer keeps his falcon with him at all times during this period, which probably lasts about two to three weeks.
The falconer has what is known as "furniture" which is the equipment he needs to train a falcon. This consists of jesses (subuq) which are attached to the bird's ankles, a perch (wakir) on which the bird sits, and a hood (burqa)placed over the bird's eyes when it is not working, to keep it quiet.
To train the falcon, the falconer swings a lure (tilwah) around his head, which he trains the bird to come to. The lure consists of a bundle of feathers. When the falcon lands on it she is rewarded with a piece of meat. Eventually the falcon learns to return to the lure each time she is released. The falconer wears a glove, or dass, over his wrist to prevent the bird's sharp claws from hurting him.
For some young men in Arabia there is no more thrilling sport than training and hunting falcons. Many of the species that were traditionally hunted, such as hares, houbara bustard and stone curlews are now protected and hunting them is not permitted. However, smaller prey, such as pigeons, can be hunted as 'quarry'.
The Arabian horse is famous throughout the world and is closely associated with the history of this area. It was selectively bred in the harsh demanding environment of the desert for its stamina and soundness.
Today Horse racing is held at a stadium in Riyadh and both endurance racing and show jumping are popular among young people.
Endurance racing is conducted over a very long course of up to 80 kilometres. This arduous journey takes the horses about 10 hours to complete. The rider and his horse are carefully monitored by equestrian officials along the way and only those judged to be in good mettle are allowed to continue. Endurance racing is a world class sport, with people travelling to many other countries to participate.
The light, clever Arabian horses were not used for jumping in the past, but thoroughbreds from Europe have been bred with it to produce an animal that is capable of competing in jumping events. In 1996 Saudi Arabia's Al' Eid family, who had been working since the 80's to breed suitable show jumping horses, led the first team to enter the Olympics in Atlanta. Against all odds, the novice team stunned the world at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 by winning a Bronze medal.
Saudi Arabia has encouraged its youth to enjoy and participate in modern sports with the provision of superb facilities and sports programmes across the country. The General Presidency of Youth Welfare has been responsible for the fast development of sport within the Kingdom. Hundreds of stadiums have been built, and physical education lessons have become an important part of the school curriculum giving young people the best possible start to acquiring sports skills.
Many different sports are taught, such as archery, athletics, handball, cycling, volleyball, table-tennis and the most popular of all, soccer. If any young person shows particular talent for a sport he is selected for special training so he can reach a standard where he can represent Saudi Arabia in international events.
Sports Cities have been built in areas where many people live, which are gigantic complexes. Within each 'city' are indoor and outdoor multipurpose stadiums with seating for thousands of spectators, an Olympic sized swimming pool, courts for different games, and sports clinics.
Football has gained enormous popularity in Saudi Arabian in the past few decades and is now considered the national sport. Every week thousands of football fans, in cities and towns all over the country, flock to watch their teams compete.
The Saudi Arabian Football team has one of the best records among all the teams in Asia . In l984 they competed in the Olympic Games for the first time. They have made it to the final of the Asian Cup five times, and have won the trophy itself three times. The Saudi team qualified for the finals of the World Cup twice, in l994 and l998. The Saudi side stunned the world with their performances in the l994 World Cup. Although knocked out of the World Cup in 2002 the Saudis left in high spirits, saying "We will be back, and we will be better.."
Saudi Arabia's first Olympic medals came in the 2000 games in Sydney, when Hadi Souan al-Somayli stepped onto the podium to receive the silver medal in the 400-metre hurdles.
Al-Somayli was born in the Red Sea port of Jizan but has moved around and says "I represent all of my country". Al-Somayli is now a national celebrity. His success encouraged youngsters to find out more about athletics. Al-Somayli's coach said "there are a lot more Saudi athletes like him, from the same environment, with the same body type. Saudi Arabia is hiding a real nest of talent."
Sport for the disabled
Saudi Arabia has developed a strong programme for disabled sportsmen and women and has twice entered the International Paralympic Sports Competition. The 2004 team were coached by British experts.
Links to find out more about sport:
The Children’s Encyclopaedia of Arabia
Mary Beardwood, Stacey International, ISBN 1 900988 33X
Saudi Aramco World
Saudi Aramco World: Endurance racing
The Saudi Arabia Information Resource
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, London
Photographs courtesy of Saudi Aramco/PADIA