Sports history in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian sports history: overview

Early days: equestrian, fencing and archery

Saudi Arabia has a long and established history in sport. Even before it became a true country, the people of this land played sports such equestrian, fencing and archery because they were already part of their everyday lives. For more than two thousand years , parents taught their children how to ride a horse, and use a sword and bow and arrow so they could hunt for food and fight in intercity and family wars.

Three phases of modern sports history

There are generally thought to be three phases to Saudi Arabian sport during the last 100 years. Phase one was from 1927 to 1953 — when the first sports clubs were formed in the 1920s, and from the 1950s onwards there were regular competitions. Phase two was from 1953 to 1974, and is considered the development era, which saw basic regulations established, as well as the Kingdom compete in its first the Olympics in 1972. Phase three is from 1974 to present day, and during this time Saudi Arabia began to compete in competitions overseas.

Sporting achievements

Saudi Arabia’s peak sporting achievements have been qualifying for four of the last five FIFA World Cups. KSA athletes have won one silver and two bronze medals at the Olympic Games, as well as achieve an all time medal haul of 48 medals in the Asian Games — positioning them 23rd out of 43 competing nations.

Popular sports in Saudi Arabia


Football is the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia, attracting the largest sports attendances of over 50,000 for top club and international games. There is also a strong culture of participation with daily use of informal sand pitches throughout the Kingdom.

The Saudi Professional League (SPL) is the top division and there are three other divisions. The league was founded in 1976 and became professional in 1990. The top three SPL teams qualify for the AFC Champions League while two teams are relegated / promoted between the divisions each season.

The Saudi Arabian national team known as Sogour meaning ‘The Falcons’, competes in many competitions on the world and Asian stage, including the FIFA World Cup, the AFC Asian Nations Cup, the Gulf Cup of Nations, and the Arab Nations Cup.

The teams best performance in the FIFA World Cup was on its debut in 1994 when it qualified for the first knockout stage. The team’s highest year-end FIFA ranking was 21st in 2004 and it has regularly been ranked in the 30s.

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.


Athletics is one of the more developed sports in Saudi Arabia, with a good number of sports clubs participating in the three adult and two youth athletics divisions. It is also one of the strongest sports in the Kingdom in terms of international performance. Saudi Arabia has attended nine Olympic Games since 1972 with the exception of the 1980 Moscow Games, winning one silver and two bronze medals.

Saudi Arabia finished 13th in the medal table at the 2006 Doha Asian Games, behind hosts Qatar but ahead of other Gulf nations, and finished seventh at the 2007 Pan Arab Games with eight gold medals, and 45 medals overall.

The Kingdom’s best performance was at the inaugural 2005 Islamic Solidarity Games, which were held in the Kingdom — Saudi athletes topped the medal table with 23 gold and 59 medals in total.


Basketball is another popular sport in Saudi Arabia. It is one of the major indoor team sports in Saudi Arabia and is included in the physical education program in 20% of state schools. Basketball is one of the few sports in which women participate, though this is on an informal basis.


Saudi Arabian aquatics consists of swimming, water polo and diving. Saudi Arabian swimmers took part in both the 1992 and 2004 Olympic Games, and Saudi aquatic teams have won at the Asian Water Polo Championships.


Archery is one of the preferred sports under Islam and one of only nine sports in which Saudi Arabia have taken part at the Olympic Games.


While Saudi Arabia has a long tradition in horse breeding and horse riding is a preferred activity under Islam, competitive show jumping did not come to the Kingdom until the 1980s. 59 Saudi show jumpers have qualified for the Olympics every year since 1996 and this is one of two sports in which the country have won an Olympic medal. Endurance riding is an established sport currently producing good international performances and polo is also practiced in Saudi Arabia.


Handball is the largest indoor team sport in Saudi Arabia and is played by sports clubs throughout the Kingdom at U17, U20 and senior level. The Kingdom has made six appearances at the World Championships, and Saudi clubs have performed consistently in the Arab Championships, winning it five times.


Karate is the longest established of the martial arts disciplines in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Tabouk are strong regional bases for karate and the sport is structured and developed at local, national and international levels.


Historically taekwondo has been one of the Kingdom’s most successful sports on the international stage. KSA national team members achieved consistent success in regional and military championships throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Khaled Al Dosari won gold medals at the 1997 World Championships and 1999 Asian Olympic Qualifiers, a silver and two bronze medals in the 1998, 2002 and 2004 Asian Championships, and a bronze at the 1996 Asian Games.


Volleyball is one of the most popular indoor sports in Saudi Arabia, with indoor volleyball far more commonly played than beach volleyball. The Saudi national team takes part in a number of regional competitions but has yet to qualify for a world championship or Olympic Games. The team has competed in the Pan Arab Games, the Gulf Volleyball Championships and the Pan Arab Volleyball Championships. The national team won the Gulf Cup in 1997 and 2005, finished fourth at the Islamic Solidarity Games, fourth in the 2007 Pan Arab Games, and were bronze medallists at the Doha 2006 Asian Games. In 2008 the Kingdom won the World Military Games.


Weightlifting is one of the more successful non-team sports in Saudi Arabia. While the sport does not command much interest from the public, athletes have reached a higher standard in weightlifting than in many other sports.

Weightlifting is one of the few sports in which Saudi Arabia has competed at the Olympic Games. The Kingdom sent its first weightlifters to the 1996 Games and four athletes participated in 2004. KSA athletes compete and have been successful in most major international competitions such as the:

  • Asian Weightlifting Championships
  • Asian Games
  • Islamic Solidarity Games
  • Pan Arab Games
  • GCC Championships

Sport for disabled and special needs

Special needs and disabled sport is organized 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 first sent a team to the Paralympic Games in 1996 and has competed 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.

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