How camel racing became beloved pastime in Saudi Arabia, region

How camel racing became beloved pastime in Saudi Arabia, region
Action from the opening day of the AlUla Camel Cup (RCU)
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Updated 15 March 2023

How camel racing became beloved pastime in Saudi Arabia, region

How camel racing became beloved pastime in Saudi Arabia, region
  • Coinciding with the inaugural AlUla Camel Cup, the head of a Royal Commission for AlUla sports program writes in Arab News about the fusion of modern and ancient in the sport

In AlUla, a place of extraordinary human and natural heritage, taking the venerated traditions of a deep-rooted past with you on the journey ahead is imperative.

As AlUla, like Saudi Arabia, modernizes, an example that aptly illustrates this is the revered pastime of camel racing, a staple of life throughout the Kingdom and one of the main elements of its heritage and culture.

Held under the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the Royal Commission for AlUla, the inaugural AlUla Camel Cup is the pinnacle of camel racing.

It is an event – organised by the RCU as part of the AlUla Moments calendar, in collaboration with the Saudi Camel Racing Federation – fusing modern and ancient, sport and culture, elemental and opulent.

From March 14 to 17, more than 40 of the region’s finest racing camels will compete at the revamped, state-of-the-art AlUla Camel Racing Field in this beautiful part of the Kingdom.

Camel racing has been bolstered through continuous investment and development in Saudi Arabia, with those at the highest levels of decision making recognising the importance of every element in contributing to comprehensive national progression.

The use of advanced technology and training techniques has enhanced the safety and efficiency of races – as well as broadening camel racing’s appeal – while still preserving the sport’s cultural and traditional values.

GPS monitors, for example, track the speed and performance of the camels, which are given healthy diets and regular training sessions to improve their performance.

In terms of rules, there have been several changes aimed at improving safety and fairness in the sport. For example, there are now strict regulations on the weight of jockeys (which are commonly robots in modern races). There are also measures to prevent cheating such as anti-doping and the use of microchips to verify the identity of camels.

If you thought football managers were passionate, then watch camel owners and trainers during race competitions to see how exuberant and caught up in the moment they can get.

They scrutinize every detail of a race closely while driving their cars along the entire field or track, adding a unique thrill to the races.

Top camel owners take the sport very seriously and invest lots of time and resources to develop their animals, whether through breeding or purchasing elite camels.

While specific growth percentages year on year cannot be accurately measured, camel racing has exceeded expectations and has seen significant growth in terms of the number of camels, new owners, and returning owners.

In recent years, however, the growth rate has exceeded 100 percent – a testament to the sport’s popularity and cultural significance in the Kingdom and, indeed, that of the wider region.

Camel racing’s journey now moves forward at the AlUla Camel Cup, an exceptional and momentous event that propels into motion an exhilarating display through the ages to the modern day.

Tough night for the Green Falcons as they suffer Venezuela friendly defeat

Tough night for the Green Falcons as they suffer Venezuela friendly defeat
Updated 25 March 2023

Tough night for the Green Falcons as they suffer Venezuela friendly defeat

Tough night for the Green Falcons as they suffer Venezuela friendly defeat
  • The last time the Saudis faced South American opposition they shocked Argentina at the World Cup, but this time they received a lesson in clinical finishing

JEDDAH: The last time Saudi Arabia met South American opposition, in November at the World Cup in Qatar, they shocked billions around the world by coming from behind to defeat eventual champions Argentina.

On Friday, however, there was no such comeback as the Green Falcons were brought down to earth with a bump, losing 2-1 in a friendly against Venezuela in Jeddah.

Much of the damage was done in the first half, during which the visitors, who also defeated Herve Renard’s men 1-0 last June in the build up to the World Cup, gave the hosts a lesson in clinical finishing.

It was the Saudis’ first game on home soil since the World Cup, but as a homecoming it was not quite what anyone had in mind. There was plenty of energy and effort on display from the hosts but they struggled to create clear, meaningful chances against determined opponents, although in the end they did come close to equalizing.

The first goal came came in the 26th minute courtesy of Josef Martinez. Salomon Rondon floated a ball over from the left and Martinez, at full stretch, volleyed it home with a low shot from the edge of the area.

Just eight minutes later, Rondon, who now plays his club football for River Plate in Argentina after saying goodbye to the English Premier League in December, made it two. The former Everton star received the ball 18 yards out, and then turned smartly to fire a low shot into the bottom corner.

The night could have gotten worse for Saudi Arabia as Martinez once again found the back of the net three minutes before the break but the goal was ruled out by the video assistant referee.

Haroune Camara came closest to getting the home fans on their feet during the first half but the Al-Ittihad forward’s shot was saved by Alain Baroja in the Venezuelan goal.

As the second half progressed, coach Renard, linked recently with the vacant position of coach for the French women’s national team, threw on several substitutes. Just after the hour mark, Abdullah Al-Khaibari, who scored his first goal for Al-Nassr during a recent 3-1 win over Abha, took over from Hussein Al-Qahtani and Camara was replaced his Al-Ittihad club colleague Abdul Aziz Al-Bishi.

Almost immediately, Saudi Arabia thought they deserved a penalty when Samuel Sosa barged over Saleh Al-Shehri in the area. After VAR took a look, however, the appeal was waved away.

Then, with 17 minutes remaining, Salem Al-Dawsari pulled a goal back in style. The 30-year-old, who scored the winning goal against Argentina, received the ball with his back to goal just inside the area and turned quickly to curl a lovely shot into the corner and finally get the fans in Jeddah cheering and believing.

Suddenly there was a renewed sense of urgency from the players in green and soon after, Baroja was diving to save a twisting header from Abdullah Al-Hamdan.

The goalkeeper was busy again three minutes from the end, as he palmed away a powerful header from Al-Shehri. As much as the two-time Asian champions tried, however, they could not get the all-important equalizer.

Despite all their efforts, in the end it was not quite enough. With the Asian Cup taking place next January, the result was not the most important aspect of this game but Saudi Arabia will look to get back to winning ways against Bolivia on Tuesday.

FIFA ranking is start of something special for Saudi women’s football, says federation chief

Saudi women’s national team were officially recognized by FIFA in their world rankings for the first time. (Supplied/SAFF)
Saudi women’s national team were officially recognized by FIFA in their world rankings for the first time. (Supplied/SAFF)
Updated 24 March 2023

FIFA ranking is start of something special for Saudi women’s football, says federation chief

Saudi women’s national team were officially recognized by FIFA in their world rankings for the first time. (Supplied/SAFF)
  • The Green Falcons enter the rankings for the first time at No. 171 after nine international matches over the last year

JEDDAH: “This is just the start of something very special.”

Those were the words of Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) president and FIFA council member Yasser Al-Misehal after the Saudi women’s national team were officially recognized by FIFA in their world rankings for the first time.

With 188 nations now included in the list of FIFA’s women’s world rankings, Saudi Arabia have made their debut at 171; a respectable placement considering their relative lack of experience, highlighting the significant development that has taken place in women’s football in the Kingdom since 2019 when the SAFF first developed the Women’s Football Department, headed by Lamia Bahaian.

“Our national team made history when it was established 18 months ago and since then their journey has inspired millions across Saudi Arabia and the region,” said Bahaian, the supervisor of the Women’s Football Department and SAFF board member.

“Entering the FIFA rankings (is what) we’ve been building towards, and signals just the beginning of what we want to achieve with these girls. They can write their own history now.

“We are also already in active collaborations with many global bodies and federations and invite the world to join in our women’s football movement as we strive to give it the platform it truly deserves.”

The official recognition continues the rapid development of the women’s game within the Kingdom, which has seen unprecedented growth in the past two years. It also means the team can now enter both FIFA- and AFC-sanctioned events.

“What these girls achieved in just a year and a half has been nothing short of incredible,” said a very proud Al-Misehal. “Since 2019 we have managed to successfully establish a national team, a premier league, a first division, a school league — with 50,000 girls signing up, and an under-17 national team.

“In just two years, we have nearly doubled the number of registered players, clubs, referees and staff and seen an 800 percent growth in the number of coaches. (These are) statistics all of football can be proud of and it just shows what is possible when you love the game.”

Most significantly, at a time when many national associations are at war with their players over equal pay and treatment, including a number that will compete at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Al-Misehal says the SAFF is determined to ensure their female players are treated the same as their male counterparts.

“We are fully committed to offering equal opportunities for boys and girls, in sport and beyond,” he said.

“For instance, our national teams get equal daily allowances while representing their country, regardless of gender. They share the same training pitches, stay in the same quality accommodation, and have access to the same equipment and resources.”

To get to this point, it has been an 18-month journey that began with the formation of the team in September 2021, after more than 700 players took part in nationwide tryouts in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

Assessing each of those players was Monika Staab, the veteran German manager and ex-player, who took on the Herculean task of starting the national team from scratch, ultimately giving 28 players the honor of being the first to be selected for the national team’s first training camp in Riyadh in November of that year.

It wasn’t until a few months later that they played their first official matches in a three-team tournament with the Maldives and Seychelles, winning both of their fixtures 2-0.

Since then there have been a further seven official matches and Saudi Arabia also hosted (and won) its inaugural women’s football tournament against Pakistan, Comoros and Mauritius earlier this year. Staab has now moved into the technical director’s role with Finland’s Rosa Lappi-Seppälä becoming coach.

“Each player has their own story, but what we all share is a love of football and a desire to compete,” national team captain Sarah Khalid said.

“To be FIFA ranked makes us part of world football and that means everything. We recognize that we have a huge responsibility to inspire the youth and pave the way for the future generations who will represent Saudi Arabia.”

Having achieved official recognition, the focus now turns to the future and building a sustainable women’s football program.

To that end, the under-17 national team was recently formed, playing their first matches earlier this month against Kuwait. The next fixtures for the senior team are currently being arranged as they look to improve on their inaugural ranking.

The focus remains on Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, aiming to become just the second West Asian nation to host the tournament and fast-tracking the growth of women’s football within the Kingdom.

NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team looking to build on Season 3 opener

NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team looking to build on Season 3 opener
Updated 24 March 2023

NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team looking to build on Season 3 opener

NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team looking to build on Season 3 opener
  • Emma Gilmour, Tanner Foust finished Saudi Desert X Prix with 14 points in 7th place

RIYADH: As the championship’s 10 teams got behind the wheel at the Season 3 opener, NEOM McLaren Extreme E looked to pick up where they left off with a podium finish at the Season 2 finale in Uruguay.

The 3.4-kilometer course of the 2023 Desert X Prix in NEOM provided the first of the challenges in what promises to be the most tightly fought season to date.

A hectic Qualifying 1 on Saturday saw McLaren’s Emma Gilmour and Tanner Foust experience a frustrating start to their Season 3 campaign. Albeit running in P3 in Qualifying 1, the driver pairing ultimately finished fifth in the first session, suffering a Switch Zone penalty as they also adjusted to the course.

Bouncing back with a stronger performance in qualifying, the NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team finished their heat in third place. It was not enough to escape the Redemption Race, however, as the team finished sixth in the overall qualifying standings – one spot short of a place in the grand final.

Having won the Crazy Race in spectacular fashion at last year’s Desert X Prix, Foust and Gilmour were no strangers to battling it out against the best of the rest in NEOM.

Foust enjoyed a great start to the series’ first ever Redemption Race, but multiple incidents including Nasser Al-Attiyah’s ABT CUPRA XE car rolling over the top of Foust’s ODYSSEY 21, saw the race red flagged.

In the chaos, Heikki Kovalainen had taken the lead for JBXE, but as the race resumed Gilmour used her ENOWA Hyperdrive to close the gap on Hedda Hosas and overtake the JBXE driver as NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team won the Redemption Race and secured valuable championship points.

Foust said: “We certainly didn’t disappoint on the extreme side. We started off with some pretty aggressive set-up changes due to the lack of track time we have in this series. We unfortunately lost a bit of time in the process in Qualifying 1, but then showed good pace for the rest of the day.

“The team were fantastic, repairing the car, enabling us to improve, and we won the Redemption Race making us the best of the rest.”

Round 2 offered a chance to use the momentum from that race win for a better qualifying stint, with plenty of racing and points opportunities still on the table in NEOM.

Sunday was another challenging day for the NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team, with fourth and third-place finishes in their respective qualifying heats meaning the team narrowly missed out on Round 2’s grand final.

Running in second and fighting for points once again in the Redemption Race, Foust and Gilmour nearly gained an all-important two championship points from the Continental Traction Challenge as they pushed hard for another Redemption Race win.

Closing out their weekend with second place in Round 2’s Redemption Race saw the NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team come away from Saudi Arabia having accrued a total of 14 points and in seventh place in the championship standings.

Gilmour said: “It was a slightly frustrating day and it’s a shame that we have not come away from this Desert X Prix with more points.

“In motorsport though, you can always have worse weekends. Considering where we were at the start of the weekend, and the progress we had to make, I think we did well.”

The Neom McLaren Extreme E Team will be looking to hit the ground running at the next Extreme E round in Scotland on May 13 and 14.

Ronaldo’s words of praise sprinkle stardust on ‘competitive’ Saudi Pro League

Ronaldo’s words of praise sprinkle stardust on ‘competitive’ Saudi Pro League
Updated 24 March 2023

Ronaldo’s words of praise sprinkle stardust on ‘competitive’ Saudi Pro League

Ronaldo’s words of praise sprinkle stardust on ‘competitive’ Saudi Pro League
  • Back in Portugal for first time since Riyadh move, Al-Nassr player lauds standard of football in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: It is a sign that a league is a significant one that when foreign players go back to their home countries for international duty, comments to their native media about the leagues where they play football and the clubs they are at make headlines around the world.

Unsurprisingly, it helps when that foreign player is Cristiano Ronaldo. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner signed for Al-Nassr at the end of December and looks to have enjoyed his time in Saudi Arabia so far, scoring nine goals in eight league games for the title-chasing club.

For the first time since arriving in Riyadh, the 38-year-old is back in Europe and preparing with Portugal for two 2024 European Championship qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. Given that Ronaldo moving to Mrsool Park was a huge deal, it is natural that local journalists have been asking the former Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Juventus star what the Roshn Saudi League is like.

He said: “I think you should look at the (Saudi Pro League) in a different way. I’m not going to say that the league is a Premier League, that would be a lie.

“But it’s a very competitive league that I’m positively surprised by, a very balanced league and good teams. I am sure that in the coming years the league will be ... the fourth, fifth, or sixth most competitive league in the world,” the attacker added.

It has made headlines around the world. Some newspapers and websites said that the claim was “bold,” while others talked of it being “astonishing.”

There may have been some eyebrows raised but here was one of the best players ever and currently the most famous (he has 564 million followers on Instagram, more than any other person in the world) talking in positive terms about football in Saudi Arabia. Only the biggest leagues in the world can dream of such exposure.

Cynics would say that it is in the interests of players to be complimentary of football in the country in which they play and the club that pays their salary but there is a long history of the opposite happening.

There have been many times when stars have gone home to play World Cup qualifiers and have said something negative about club coaches, team-mates, or food back in the place where they are employed.

When it upsets people back at their clubs then the time-honored excuse is that the player was misquoted or the comments were taken out of context.

Kim Min-jae, now with Napoli, once had to back track quickly when he appeared to question the level of defending among his Beijing team-mates when back home in Korea.

Obviously, the reverse is much more pleasant for coaches, team-mates, and fans to hear. Praise always goes down well. The first part of Ronaldo’s comments were clear for all to see and hard to dispute. The league is competitive.

Just look at Al-Hilal. The Blues are the most successful team in Saudi Arabian and Asian history and in February defeated the champions of Africa and South America to book a FIFA Club World Cup final with Real Madrid. The 5-3 defeat against the European giants was an exciting spectacle for fans and won respect for the losers from those watching on every continent.

Just a few days later, the Riyadh giants were booking a place in the Asian Champions League final in February with a 7-0 thrashing of Al-Duhail of Qatar in the semi-final. Al-Hilal are currently in fourth and desperately trying to stay in touch with the top three.

Al-Shabab in third, Al-Nassr in second, and Al-Ittihad, currently in pole position, are three of the top teams in Asia and there is strength going all the way down the league. Indeed, Al-Faisaly in the second tier, reached the knockout stage of the 2022 Champions League.

Whether the league could become one of the top six in the world will be seen in the future. For now, it is a matter of debate, but it is a debate that league officials would love to see happen in Europe and elsewhere. This is one of the benefits of signing famous foreign players.

There are plenty of top foreign players in Saudi Arabia who play for international teams. In the next few days, there could be four facing each other in the same game. Al-Wehda’s Abderrazak Hamdallah and Mounir Al-Mohammadi of 2022 World Cup semi-finalists Morocco will take on Brazil in a friendly on Saturday and the following Tuesday, the Atlas Lions take on Peru with Andre Carrillo of Al-Hilal and Christopher Gonzalez from Al-Adalah.

The likes of Ahmed Hegazi and Tarek Hamad of Al-Ittihad are regulars for Egypt, Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu is South Korea’s No. 1, and there is also Grzegorz Krychowiak who was with Poland at the World Cup.

As more international players and coaches come to Saudi Arabia, more of them can see a thriving and competitive league with talented local players, who showed what they are made of at the World Cup, and can then go home and spread the word.

Azooz & Jude, Saudi Motorsport Company partner in awareness campaign

Azooz & Jude, Saudi Motorsport Company partner in awareness campaign
Updated 23 March 2023

Azooz & Jude, Saudi Motorsport Company partner in awareness campaign

Azooz & Jude, Saudi Motorsport Company partner in awareness campaign
  • The cartoon is supported by an activity book and an online interactive challenge for children to test their skills and knowledge
  • Using the story of Azooz & Jude, teachers introduced children to the world of motorsport

JEDDAH: The Saudi Motorsport Company (SMC) has partnered with Dream Rock Entertainment to produce an educational children’s community program to spread awareness about motorsport in the Kingdom.
Dream Rock Entertainment, a children’s content company and creators of the children’s YouTube channel Azooz & Jude, released a story and cartoon series titled “Azooz and Jude Go to the Race” as part of the partnership.
The cartoon is supported by an activity book and an online interactive challenge for children to test their skills and knowledge. The program includes a roadshow visit to disability centers, where children can see Formula One cars up close and wear helmets to learn about safety measures in racing.
“Dream Rock Entertainment’s team knew how to reach our audience and get the message out there in a way that truly captured the hearts and minds of the youth. This collaboration has proven to be a great success in reaching thousands in our local community and beyond. We look forward to bringing more excitement about motorsport,” said Sara Bughdadi, SMC community engagement leader.
To generate excitement among young fans and their parents in both Arabic and English, as well as reach a new generation of bilingual children, SMC conducted a six-week roadshow across schools in Jeddah.
Using the story of Azooz & Jude, teachers introduced children to the world of motorsport. SMC teams distributed more than 2,000 activity books to schools and centers, while the YouTube cartoon was promoted across the social media channels of both Azooz & Jude and the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
“We are thrilled to partner with the Saudi Motorsport Company to produce this educational cartoon series,” said Sara Ashmemry, co-founder of Dream Rock Entertainment.
“This collaboration brings together the community in a way that makes it possible to create a cartoon series that not only entertains, but also educates young fans about the world of motorsport,” said Alanoud Alhejailan, CEO of Dream Rock Entertainment.
Both founders of Dream Rock Entertainment said that as a team, they were thrilled to have collaborated with the Saudi Motorsport Company. The partnership gave them the opportunity to bring Azooz & Jude to life, which was a challenging but exciting project, they added.
“With hard work, dedication and passion, we were able to deliver this project in less than three months,” said Ashmemry.
“We are grateful for the opportunity we had, and we are proud of what we achieved together. We look forward to future collaborations that showcase our commitment to excellence,” Alhejailan added.