Going GAA-GAA in Saudi Arabia

December 06, 2011
The hot sand, high summer temperatures of 55 degrees centigrade and a herd of camels drifting past in the distance is not the usual back-drop to a GAA training session, but such is the environment in Riyadh where the Naomh Alee Riyadh gaels have recently revitalised the Gaelic Games code in the most populous country in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is far from a hostile environment for gaelic games. It is politically stable, and although the weather is hot, night falls early, and always between 6pm and 7pm. So night training will inevitably be cooler and more feasible. However, culturally, the GAA representatives in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have had to adapt to the local practices and policies.

Tradition has it that men and women don't 'mix' in public in what is the heartland of the Muslim world, but the Naomh Alee Banshees find an acceptable way of engaging their weekly training regime, behind the walls of a residential resort, overseen by coach Sile McIlroy, Galway native and no mean Golf player either.

The men too, engage in all the rigours of a regular 2 hour physical and technical training regime, albeit on the artificial surface of a 'hockey' pitch and in the absence of the distinct uprights that distinguish our game from the 'ground-football' version. But, pressed on by coach Patrick Moynagh, himself more accustomed to Breffni Park than Riyadh, the thirty five or so regulars push on to be 'the best that they can be'.

Diaspora Abu
The national, or rather international mix of these GAA players is interesting. Among the men there are the predictable Irish brogues, a distinctive 'Ulster' pitch from Down, Derry, Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal. The Dub's feature large, inevitably challenged by Kildare and Meath, while the Munster men f Kerry & Cork continue to make their mark…even if a little further east than usual. The west has, perhaps surprisingly, fewer representatives, but the few are vocal and keen to declare their presence.

Then there are the 'new Irish'. GAA has been 'found' in Riyadh by the ex-pats of Germany and France as well as the Kiwi's, Aussies and our neighbours from UK. Not to be out-done, the Gulf region hails Tarik, Jordanian born and now an exponent of the 'catch and kick' game. The expansion continues.

Among the ladies, there is a distinct non-national flavor, with over half of the female exponents of the game in Saudi Arabia being drawn from nationalities other than the Irish. Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, continental Europe…..all vibrant sources of keen GAA players for the Naomh Alee Riyadh Banshees, and with a conviction and determination that would be perfectly at home on Parnell Park or perhaps more appropriately, Countess Markievicz Park.

The Economic Pendulum swings
Access to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn't easy. Passport Visa's and permits are an arduous and slow process. As a result, fixing challenge matches and attending tournaments inevitably involves travel out of the country. Usually, this will be to the Emirates, Bahrain, Dubai or even further afield.

That said, the Gulf Games scene is vibrant right now. Economic tribulation 'back home' has seen many young (and not so young' Irish men and women seek to 'pay their way' through employment in the Middle East and Gulf. From financial analysts to engineers, architects and software designers to bankers, nurses and teachers. Virtually every profession is catered for. The oil dollar is strong and opportunity awaits the brave. And so too does the GAA.

Like Britain, the US and Australia in the 1940's and 50's, the GAA in the Gulf is the common bond that bring the many with any, even the most distant Irish connection, together.

So, what of the Saudi Arabian Gaels?
Among the oldest of the Middle East GAA Clubs, Naomh Alee in Riyadh was established in 1994 and were the regional kingpins in Hurling, Camogie and Football in those early years. However, changes in the political environment and the consequent security tensions changed much for the club in the early part of the new Millennium and the club became almost dormant for 6 years or so. But, in almost Dickensian terms, and his tale of two cities, Dublin's down-turn through the credit crunch of 2007/8 refreshed the GAA population of Riyadh. And with a little re-structuring in 2010, Naomh Alee were back in business.

The Gulf Games - Re-charging the challenge
Over the last two years, the Gaels of Riyadh and Saudi Arabia have been tentatively breaking back into the competitive arena, and with marked progress.

In 2010, one mens team travelled to Bahrain for the Middle East Championships, in hope rather than expectation, only to be beaten in the intermediate Championship Final, by the narrowest of margins, in extra-time. In 2011, the Gulf Games in Dubai, saw a more expectant Riyadh mens team again reach the Intermediate Final, only to narrowly lose out to Qatar in another close contest.

This November, two mens teams travelled to Bahrain, and this time the Intermediate squad progressed, undefeated to the Championship Final, while the Naomh Alee Junior team also found their feet, progressing impressively to the Junior Final at their first attempt. Although the Intermediate squad wouls once agan finish runners up to Abu Dhabi and our Juniors would be narrowly beaten by the Arabian Celts of Bahrain, the future looks promising for the Gaels of the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

'Inchallah', next year, as they say in these parts..please God. There too, the evident progress made by the Naomh Alee ladies will turn out its reward as well.

For the record, the Naomh Alee squads were: Naomh Alee Eire Og squad: Richard O'Leary, Ollie McWilliams, Dermot Quigley, Tommy Roe, Ollie Carvil, Keith Croft, Sean Purcell, Joe Dolan, Enda Dolan (Capt), Garret Clery, Daniel Devine and Adrian O'Leary and coach Patrick Moynagh

Naomh Alee Setanta squad: Dermot Murphy, Padraig Cusack, Anthony King, Julien Romand, Gerry Sayers, Jonathon Vidler, John Kerins, John Bolger, Sean O'Sullivan, Mark Sherrard, Yann Doiteaux and Captain Kevin Bates.

Naomh Alee Banshees squad: Gerraine Poole, Catherine Buckley, Roisin O Sullivan, Sarah Hogan, Lisa Mc Gregor, Steph Mc Gregor, Morena McInerney, Jennifer O Sullivan, Nicola Smith, Yin Yin Chooi, Hayley McDonald, Polly Lyons and Tania Neale, and coach Sile McIlroy

Joining Naomh Alee GAA Club in Riyadh
So, if you find yourself in the Gulf or in Saudi Arabia pursuing your new career during 2012, look us up and make your mark in the sand…..you will always be welcome with the GAA - Arabian style.

eMail - [email protected] or Phone - 00 966 54 10 33 714 (Patrick)

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