The desert freezes over: Arabs swap sand for skates as ice hockey's popularity surges
Enthusiastic fans cheering for their team is a familiar sight during football, basketball, or handball games. However, in this instance, the sounds coming from the stands were not in sync with a ball, but with a puck.
The recently concluded Arab Cup, which took place in Kuwait from May 4-14, successfully captured the interest of numerous individuals, both young and old, towards the sport of ice hockey — a game that is not typically favoured in the Arab region.
The tournament consisted of eight Arab nations, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Lebanon. The Lebanese national side was eventually crowned champions, with Kuwait and Oman picking up second and third positions, respectively.
"Ice hockey is growing very fast... The United Arabs Emirates has climbed up the rankings in the world championships. Kuwait is also in the World Championships. Other Arab nations are growing their Ice hockey programs"
The Arab Cup for Ice Hockey is back for its second edition after a 15-year hiatus since the first one was held in Abu Dhabi in 2008. The organisers have promised to make this an annual event, providing a platform for players and fans of this winter sport to come together.
Fahed Al-Ajmi from Kuwait has been elected as the president, while Muhammed Jumua Dahri from the UAE and Khaled Mrini from Morocco were elected as the vice presidents for Asia and Africa.
“The first goal of the federation is to reassemble Arabs around Ice Hockey at least once a year and to establish mutual financial and technical assistance," Khaled Mrini told The New Arab.
Khaled grew up in Canada where Ice Hockey is the national sport. The athlete developed a passion for this winter game and challenged himself to introduce it in his country of origin: Morocco.
The journey started back in 2005 with the construction of the first ice rink in Rabat. According to Khaled, they now have a national championship with 15 teams and 1000 players.
The athlete from Morocco acknowledges that the path to success was not easy. Initially, people were doubtful due to the misconception that Ice Hockey is a costly sport. However, they managed to promote it and ensure that people from all social classes could access and enjoy it.
Khaled maintains a positive outlook and firmly believes in the potential for ice hockey to thrive in the Arab world. He cites the inaugural African Cup held in Rabat, Morocco in 2016 as evidence to support his vision.
"The doors of the ice rink had to be closed for security reasons due to the overwhelming number of attendees. I'm confident that the future of ice hockey in our countries is full of promise," Khaled continues. "Our youth is longing for change. They want to play something other than football and I hope leaders will answer their calls.”
Karim Kerbouche, an Algerian-British enthusiast, shares Khaled Mrini's passion for making Ice Hockey a popular sport among Arabs.
In 2008, Karim Kerbouche successfully initiated the first edition of the Arab Cup by proposing a pan-Arab tournament concept to the UAE federation. As a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) along with Kuwait, the UAE readily accepted to host the event with the aim of establishing an Algerian ice hockey team.
Karim made history in 2008 by establishing a national team and in 2016, he went on to create a local club. His tireless efforts have paid off as he successfully joined IIHF in 2019.
Karim is determined to showcase his country's potential in winter sports and break the stereotype that it is only known for its desert. "We are good at ice hockey and I am determined to show it," he said to The New Arab.
In May 2022, Algeria participated as the only Arab team in the Development Cup of Ice Hockey in Fussen, Germany. Algeria’s participation generated a buzz on social media and was widely followed. Some members of the Algerian diaspora in Europe even travelled to Germany to cheer the team.
“Ice hockey is growing very fast,” says Karim. “The United Arabs Emirates has climbed up the rankings in the world championships. Kuwait is also in the World Championships. Other Arab nations are growing their Ice Hockey programmes."
Climate is not an obstacle
Despite the generally hotter climate in North Africa and the Middle East, which contrasts with the snowy regions where this sport originated and developed in North America, passionate athletes remain undeterred by climatic challenges.
Karim argues that the climate isn't a hindrance to Ice Hockey as hot countries have many ice rinks. However, the athlete points out that the lack of ice rinks in Algeria is impeding the sport's progress. To mitigate this, Algeria's team members, consisting mainly of bi-nationals, train individually overseas before coming together for competitions.
Ice Hockey enthusiasts in the Arab world are optimistic about the future of the sport, despite being aware of the challenges that need to be overcome to increase its popularity in the region.
Karim aims to cultivate a stronger sense of unity among North African, Middle Eastern, and Gulf nations to enhance their collaborative capabilities. He firmly believes that mutual respect and cooperation are essential for the region's sports industry to thrive. By highlighting their combined strengths, they can effectively demonstrate the immense potential of the region to the rest of the world.
Yasmin, a sports enthusiast from Algeria, followed the Arab Cup with great interest. She expressed her excitement at discovering a new sport and was proud of the achievements of her national team. She also hoped to see the sport extended to women, as it has already been done in Kuwait.
Yasmine Marouf-Araibi is a freelance journalist based in Algiers. She covers North African political and social issues
Follow her on Twitter: @Yasmine_May_