Eyes on the prize as Saudi women target global sporting glory

JEDDAH: Saudi women are stepping up to take their place on the global sports scene with a 2,000-year-old game leading the way.

The growing popularity of badminton among women has made it one of the fastest growing sports in the UK, according to leading athletes.

Muqrin Al-Muqrin, chairman of the Saudi Badminton Federation, said the recent Saudi women’s badminton championship in Riyadh highlighted the role of women players in the sport’s rapid expansion.

“I see a bright future for women’s sport in the Kingdom and the aspiration of Saudi women to be among the most successful and prominent sports figures with global achievements,” he said.

Badminton is said to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago. It was brought to Britain in the 1870s and soon spread around the world.

The Saudi federation was founded in 2014 and gained membership in an international and Asian federation three years later. It now represents more than 5,000 players in the kingdom and was named the best badminton association in the world this year.

Women are at the heart of the Saudi FA’s plans to encourage participation in the sport.

“A big part of the federation’s strategy is to focus on women badminton players by providing the necessary facilities and facilitating practice so that women of all ages can play,” Al-Muqrin said.

The chairman said the federation’s strategies have proven their effectiveness in promoting the sport and have made Saudi Arabia one of the leading countries working on the development and dissemination of the game.

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Speaking to Arab News, Al-Muqrin shared his history with racquet sports.

“I’ve been very interested in badminton since the mid-1990s when the sport spread to the Asian communities in the kingdom,” he said. “I was interested in following the game on Arab and international level and instilled a passion in me to develop this game in the kingdom.”

Al-Muqrin said the federation also aims to increase the number of women players by opening academies, organizing local tournaments and establishing training courses for women coaches and referees.

Some 20 women referees have graduated since 2018, while a Saudi women’s team has competed in several international and Arab tournaments, including the 2021 Arab Championship, where they won a bronze medal.

The federation also opened the way for thousands of players of all ages and founded the first academy offering professional badminton training for men and women in the kingdom.

Saudi badminton player Rana Abuharbesh said she started playing the sport as a hobby in her early university years.

“I tried the course once and I never stopped playing after that,” the 26-year-old told Arab News.

Abuharbesh joined the federation in 2018 and became one of the first female badminton players in the kingdom.

“My goal is to promote badminton as a sport in the Saudi community in general and to get girls interested in the sport,” she said.

Referring to the recent Saudi women’s championships, she said such tournaments encourage young girls to take up the sport.

“It makes me so happy to see girls who are committed to the game and want to compete. Hopefully one day I’ll see them get better and better and compete in international tournaments,” she said.

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Syrian Ammar Awad, technical director of the Saudi Badminton Federation, started playing when he was 8 years old.

“Badminton is a fun sport and was widespread in Syria at the time. I continued to practice locally and internationally until I achieved advanced results while competing in Arab and West Asian championships,” he told Arab News.

Awad began coaching players in 2018 in preparation for the Asian Games in Jakarta, Asia’s biggest tournament.

He said the recent women’s titles in Riyadh were the first to include under-13, under-15 and under-19 age groups.

“A lot of players took part. We have a good group of female players in these categories and we will work to develop their skills to best represent the kingdom,” he said.

“There are many talented women out there and certainly there is a tangible interest from women in this game. We work to grow the sport, reach out to talent and get them into the national teams.”

“We’re focusing on physical ability, endurance, speed, agility, flexibility and game plans,” he said.

Saudi referee Rowaida bin Kulaib, 28, took up badminton early in college when she watched fellow students play on the campus court.

“I love to play because it challenges me mentally and physically. I’m a competitive person. Badminton had become my passion and obsession,” she said.

In 2018, bin Kulaib took his first steps towards becoming a referee by attending a beginner’s course run by the Saudi FA. In the same year she took part in the first women’s tournament.

In 2021 she received a specialist referee certificate.

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“I have competed in many tournaments as a general umpire, referee, service umpire and linesman. I’m working on getting the international degree to be able to compete outside of the UK and be more proud of my achievements,” she said.

Bin Kulaib is one of the main referees in tournaments organized by the Ministry of Sports and the Saudi Badminton Federation.

“Referees are one of the toughest roles in sport. Keeping track of small to big mistakes is my job as a referee,” she said.

Bin Kulaib said she was impressed with the performances of the younger players at the Riyadh tournament.

“They are so disciplined, determined and committed. The kind of competitiveness and energy they brought to the arena was impressive and inspiring. I have no doubt that they will make our division proud in the near future,” she said.

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