Mohamed Salah, Ahmed Hafnaoui and the 10 Arab sportsmen to watch in 2024

With the Paris Olympics and two major continental football tournaments, 2024 is set to be a big year for Arab athletes

Mohamed Salah is in the hunt for trophies with both Liverpool and Egypt in 2024. EPA
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With the Paris Olympics looming ahead this summer and the Africa Cup of Nations and Asia Cup football tournaments kicking off in January, 2024 promises to be a big year for Arab athletes.

Here are 10 of the top sportsmen from the Mena region primed for success over the next 12 months.

Ahmed Hafnaoui (Tunisia) – Swimming


At just 20 years of age, at the 2023 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan last spring, Ahmed Ayoub Hafnaoui asserted himself as one of the fastest swimmers in history in all three of the men’s distance events, clinching gold in the 800m and 1,500m freestyle, and silver in the 400m freestyle.

His time in the 1,500 freestyle ranks him second all-time, while his 800 freestyle was the third-fastest in history, and his 400 freestyle the fifth-fastest.

Hafnaoui exploded onto the scene at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when he stunned the field to win gold in 400m freestyle while swimming in lane 8, which is dedicated to the slowest swimmer of the eight qualifiers into the final.

Just 18 at the time, Hafnaoui shocked himself and the world with his performance and has proven two years later his Tokyo heroics were no fluke.

Currently training in California with The Swim Team (TST) elite group under acclaimed coach Mark Schubert, Hafnaoui has a busy year ahead with the World Aquatics Championships coming up in February in Qatar and the Paris 2024 Olympics commencing in July.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt) – Football

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The tireless Mohamed Salah has so far netted 12 goals in 19 Premier League games for Liverpool this campaign, standing joint-second on the top-scorers list behind Erling Haaland (14).

He has been setting records all year and his exploits have helped guide the Reds to the top of the Premier League table.

In March, the ‘Egyptian King’ became Liverpool’s all-time leading Premier League goal-scorer when he bagged a brace against Manchester United to eclipse the tally of previous leader Robbie Fowler.

In October against Toulouse in the Europa League, Salah scored his 43rd goal for Liverpool in Europe, to set a new record for most goals scored by a player for a single English club in major European competitions.

In November against Brentford in the Premier League, Salah netted the 200th goal of his career in English football, in all competitions, and also became the first Liverpool player to score in each of the club’s first six home league games.

“A player with his numbers I’m not sure I will ever coach again,” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp recently said of Salah. “Absolutely exceptional player, all-time great. No shadow of a doubt.”

Besides seeking a second Premier League crown with Liverpool, Salah will be looking to guide Egypt to a record eighth Africa Cup of Nations title, and first since 2010, when he leads the Pharaohs in the competition, which begins on January 13 in Ivory Coast.

Ahmad Abu Al Soud (Jordan) – Gymnastics


Jordanian gymnast Ahmad Abu Al Soud almost quit the sport in 2015 because he wasn’t getting the results he was hoping for.

“Imagine being in gymnastics for 15 years without medals, it was very difficult to stay,” he told The Straits Times in an interview. “But with discipline, I got the first gold medal in the Asian Championships in Mongolia [in 2019] and that was the big key to starting my journey.”

In 2022, Abu Al Soud secured the silver medal in pommel horse at the World Championships in Liverpool, making him the first-ever Jordanian or Arab gymnast to make the podium at a Worlds.

Despite battling injuries for most of 2023, Abu Al Soud managed to clinch bronze in his signature event at the World Championships in Antwerp.

The 28-year-old from Amman, who has a skill named after him in the official rulebook, needed gold to guarantee himself a spot in the Paris 2024 Olympics but can still qualify by gathering points at the World Cup series in the coming months.

“I know I can do better. I was going for the gold for the Olympics, but it’s fine. I will fight for it next year in the World Cups. Going to Paris is a dream. I know I can win the gold, but it’s pommel horse, it does not always work as you like. But it’s fine, we will work on it,” said Abu Al Soud.

Omar Al Marzooqi (UAE) – Equestrian


When he was just 15, Omar Al Marzooqi won a silver medal in individual showjumping in Buenos Aires to become the first Emirati to ever step on the podium at a Youth Olympic Games.

Five years on, Al Marzooqi was part of the UAE team that claimed a historic qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympics, marking the first time the Emirates has made it to the Games as a full team.

At the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou in October, Al Marzooqi clinched silver in individual showjumping, and bronze in the team event with his fellow Emiratis and now has his sights firmly focused on this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“It’s a new level for us, especially the Olympics is something we never saw,” Al Marzooqi told The National following his Asian Games success. “I’ll try to do my best to, if not get a medal, for sure everyone wishes for a medal, but I want to finish the Olympics with a great image of Omar Al Marzooqi, and the UAE riders as well, not only Omar.”

Abdullah Shelbayh (Jordan) – Tennis

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With a crafty lefty game and a high tennis IQ, 20-year-old Abdullah Shelbayh rocketed up the rankings in 2023, rising from 470 at the start of the season to a career-high 185 in the world in November.

The Rafa Nadal Academy player became the first Jordanian and youngest Arab in history to win a Challenger title when he triumphed in Charleston in September.

He finished the year in style, by competing – via a wildcard – at the Next Gen Finals in Jeddah, where he won one of his three group-stage matches before exiting the tournament.

Shelbayh, who has spent time practicing with 22-time major champion Rafael Nadal at the Spaniard’s academy in Mallorca during the offseason, is set to make his Grand Slam qualifying debut at the Australian Open in January.

With a professional team of coaches and mentors in his corner (that includes Toni Nadal), and a talent that has carried him into the top 200 before turning 20, there’s no telling how far Shelbayh can go in 2024.

Amine Adli (Morocco) – Football


Into his third full season with Bayer Leverkusen, Amine Adli has scored five goals and supplied eight assists across all competitions this campaign, helping his side enter the winter break at the top of the Bundesliga table.

After representing France at U18 and U21 levels, the 23-year-old winger announced in August he will be playing for Morocco moving forward and he scored his first goal for the Atlas Lions in an Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier against Liberia.

Adli was named in Walid Regragui’s final squad for the upcoming Afcon, where the Moroccans will be considered one of the favourites following their heroic fourth-place finish at the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

Whether it’s with Leverkusen or the Atlas Lions, Adli has a legitimate chance of scooping silverware in 2024.

Mutaz Barshim (Qatar) – Athletics

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Footage of Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi deciding to share the high jump gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 is still being shared on social media and will forever go down as one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the Games.

The two friends, who had helped each other overcome career-threatening injuries in the build-up to Tokyo, felt they both deserved the gold after they attempted and failed to clear 2.39m in the final.

They have vowed not to repeat that gesture again if they find themselves tied at the Paris 2024 Olympics, with Barshim assuring he would opt for the jump-off.

The 32-year-old Barshim is an institution when it comes to the high jump, having collected two silver medals at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics before sharing the top step of the podium with Tamberi in Tokyo.

The popular Qatari is a three-time World Championship gold medallist and most recently clinched bronze at Worlds in Budapest.

Can he medal for a fourth consecutive Olympic Games?

Firas Al Buraikan (Saudi Arabia) – Football

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A surprise exclusion from Roberto Mancini’s squad for Saudi Arabia’s 2026 World Cup qualifiers in November has not slowed down Firas Al Buraikan, who has been impressing in the Saudi Pro League in a stacked Al Ahli roster that features the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, and Allan Saint-Maximin.

The 23-year-old Saudi Arabian striker started his 2023/2024 campaign with Al Fateh, netting four goals in five games before making a big-money move to Al Ahli that is reportedly worth SAR40 million ($10.7m) – a record sale for Al Fateh.

Since joining the Jeddah-based side, Al Buraikan has scored seven goals in 11 games, taking his total tally this campaign to 11 – the most netted by a local player in the league, and fourth-most overall behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Georges-Kevin N'Koudou.

In their first season back in top flight following a shock relegation that sent them to first division for a year, Al Ahli are unbeaten in their last eight games and lie third in the Saudi Pro League table.

As Mancini gets set to name his squad for January’s AFC Asia Cup in Qatar, the Italian might reconsider including Al Buraikan given the Saudi forward has scored five goals in his last four games.

Soufiane El Bakkali (Morocco) – Athletics


At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Moroccan Soufiane El Bakkali made history when he became the first non-Kenyan to win the 3,000m steeplechase since 1980.

He has not lost a race in the event since.

Gold medal showings have followed at the World Athletics Championships in 2022 and 2023, along with a string of Diamond League triumphs.

“I came ready and prepared and believed I could win. This medal gives me additional motivation for the Olympic Games in Paris. I want to win there too,” the 27-year-old from Fes said at Worlds in Budapest in August, where he came up with a clutch final 200m to overcome world record-holder Lamecha Girma.

It’s hard seeing anyone getting the better of El Bakkali in Paris.

Yahia Omar (Egypt) – Handball

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One of Egypt’s most talented handball players, Yahia Omar played a key role in the Pharaohs’ fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and made the tournament’s All-Star team as the best right back.

Omar also helped guide Egypt to an eighth African title in 2022, and was named MVP of the competition.

Disaster struck in December 2022 when he tore his ACL while playing a game for his Hungarian club Telekom Veszprem but after undergoing surgery and a long road to recovery, Omar was back on court nine months later.

While he was recovering, it was announced that Omar will be joining Paris Saint-Germain from July 2024 on a three-season deal, spelling the end of a storied journey with Veszprem, with whom he won a national championship (2023), three SEHA leagues (2020, 2021, 2022) and three Hungarian Cups (2021, 2022, 2023).

With Egypt fancied to qualify for the Paris Olympics, and Omar finding a new home at PSG, the French capital might prove to be a special place for the 26-year-old Cairene in 2024.

To read Reem Abulleil's top 10 Arab sportswomen to watch out for in 2024, click here.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 5:26 AM