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

Badminton’s growing popularity among women has turned it into one of the Kingdom’s fastest-growing sports, according to leading sporting figures.

Muqrin Al-Muqrin, chairman of the Saudi Badminton Federation, said the recent Saudi Women’s Badminton Championship in Riyadh highlighted the role of female players in the sport’s rapid expansion.

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

Badminton is thought 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 established in 2014 and gained international and Asian federation membership three years later. It now represents more than 5,000 players in the Kingdom and this year was named best badminton federation in the world.

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

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

The chairman said that the federation’s strategies have proven their effectiveness in promoting the sport, making Saudi Arabia among the leading countries working to develop and spread the game.

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

“I have had a great interest in badminton since the mid-Nineties when the sport spread among Asian communities in the Kingdom,” he said. “I was interested in following the game at the Arab and international levels, creating a passion inside me to develop this game in the Kingdom.”

Al-Muqrin said that the federation also aims to increase the number of women players by opening academies, organizing local tournaments, and setting up training courses for female trainers and referees.

About 20 women referees have graduated since 2018, while a Saudi women’s team has contested 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 set up the first academy offering professional badminton training for both men and women in the Kingdom.

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

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

Abuharbesh joined the federation in 2018, becoming one of the first female badminton players in the Kingdom.

“My goal is to grow badminton as a sport in the Saudi community in general and to inspire girls in sports,” she said.

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

“It makes me so happy to see girls dedicated to the game and wanting to compete. Hopefully, one day, I will see them getting better and better, and competing in international tournaments,” she said.

Syrian Ammar Awad, the Saudi Badminton Federation’s technical director, began playing the sport as an 8-year-old.

“Badminton is a fun sport, and it was widespread in Syria at the time. I continued practicing locally and internationally until I achieved advanced results during my participation in Arab and West Asian championships,” he told Arab News.

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

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

“Many players participated. We have a good group of female players in these categories, and we will work on developing their skill levels to represent the Kingdom in the best way,” he said.

“There are many talented women, and certainly there is a noticeable interest from women in this game. We are working to expand the sport, to reach talents and include them in the national teams.”

“We focus on physical skills, endurance, speed, agility, flexibility and game plans,” he said.

Saudi referee Rowaida bin Kulaib, 28, took up badminton during her early college days when she saw fellow students playing on the campus court.

“I love playing 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 the first steps toward becoming a referee by taking part in a beginners’ course held by the Saudi federation. She took part in the first women’s tournament the same year.

In 2021, she received a specialist umpiring certificate.

“I joined lots of tournaments as a general referee, umpire, service umpire and line judge. I’m working to get the international degree in order to participate outside the Kingdom and be prouder of my achievements,” she said.

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

“Refereeing is one of the toughest roles in the sport. Having an eye on small to major mistakes is what I do as a referee,” she said.

Bin Kulaib said that she was impressed by the younger players’ performances in the Riyadh tournament.

“They are so disciplined, determined and dedicated. 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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