When most people think about the word sports, they think of conventional games such as soccer, cricket, and baseball, but in the Arab countries, sports often have another definition. Indeed, conventional sports are practiced throughout the region, and physical activities were part of Arab culture centuries before colonialism, reflecting the geographical specificity of the Arab World in relation to space, time and objects. Though the development of sports into the twenty-first century has intersected with important cultural and historical processes, physical activities intended for entertainment and enjoyment also involve exercises attached to religious festivals and celebrations of the seasons, much as they have for centuries. Today we’ll take a look at the popular global sports that have permeated the Middle East along with those specific to the region.
Football In Arabic / Korat al kadam /كرة القدم
Football (or soccer) is like a second religion in the Middle East. That makes sense since soccer remains the world’s largest sport, being broadcast across the globe. The sport appears to dominate the Maghreb, Gulf and Levant regions, as well as Turkey and Iran. Most of these countries have emerging leagues and attract quality players from Europe who are nearing the end of their careers. In 2022, Qatar will even be hosting the World Cup!
Basketball In Arabic / Korat al sallah /كرة السلة
Iraq’s top sport is basketball – which could be a reflection of the years of American occupation, but don’t think it is important only in Iraq; the 2014 FIBA Under-17 World Championship was an international basketball competition held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, reflecting how popular the game has become in the region.
Tennis In Arabic / Tennis /تنس
Long neglected in the region, the sport is now gaining ground, and tournaments are now organized in Qatar, the UAE and Morocco, raising its profile and investment in local players. In 2000, The Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships was the biggest tennis ever held in the region with no less than six of the top-seeded women’s players taking center court.
Volleyball In Arabic / Korat al ta’era /كرة الطائرة
Volleyball seems to be on the rise in the region since some teams proved to be worthy competitors. Iran’s volleyball team gave the United States a shocking defeat in 2015.
Swimming In Arabic / Sibaha /سباحة
Swimming is not a very popular sport in the Middle East practiced at a competitive level. However, regular folks love to go for a dive during the scorching heat of the summer.
Golf In Arabic / Golf / جولف
Arab leaders are generally less enthusiastic about portraying themselves as sportsmen in public. It could be argued that sport, despite its popularity and power to mobilize the people, is still considered in the Arab World as a domain of amusement (hence, not serious). That is being said, there are, however, some exceptions. King Hassan II of Morocco was a keen golfer. He stated that many political decisions were taken on the golf course. The King once declared in a 1987 interview for Jour de France magazine that his best moments were when he was playing golf, and the only thing that would stop him was when one of his ministers would bring an important file between two golf swings.
Skating In Arabic / Tazaloj / تزلج
Considering that Middle East is usually a pretty hot area, you wouldn’t think that skating is popular, but did you know that the UAE’s top sport is ice hockey? That’s because the Emirates’ squad was ranked 44th internationally in 2015 in the International Ice Hockey Federation, higher than the country was ranked in any other international sporting federation.
Falconry In Arabic /sayd al suqqor/صيد الصقور
Known as the game of the wealthy, falconry is a sport that involves taming and teaching a falcon to hunt for its trainer. Falconry was originally practiced by Bedouins to hunt hares and other birds for food and later developed into an esteemed sport. The UAE is well known for its falconry as it is also considered a traditional sport. Many of UAE’s rulers are falconry enthusiasts as the nation imports falcons from all across the globe.
Camel Racing In Arabic/rokob al jmal/ركوب الجمال
Camel racing is a popular spectator sport in the Arabian Peninsula. Camels are bred and trained for racing from the age of two, mainly in the interior regions of the country. Winners are highly rewarded and prizes range from cash to cars. Also, winning camels are sold for vast amounts of money.
Sport is a tool for integrating into the international community. It’s an opportunity for investment and economic development which ought to mobilize and unite the country’s political and business elites. Sport is also a space for the population to voice their discontent and disillusionment with the political and economic situations and to shout their opposition openly, Arabs are surely aware of all of the above.