In a year disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 proved frustrating for the Arab world's female athletes. With professional sports undergoing months-long shutdowns and major championships, most notably the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, postponed to 2021, opportunities to showcase their talents to the world were scarce.
As we look ahead to a new year with hopeful optimism, Reem Abulleil selects 10 Arab female athletes who are set to make their mark in their respective sports.
Mayar Sherif (Egypt) – Tennis
The highest-ranked Egyptian player in the history of women’s tennis, Sherif has her sights firmly set on becoming the first Egyptian to rank in the top 100 since Ismail El Shafei in 1978.
The 24-year-old Cairene rose to national hero status when she qualified for Roland Garros last September, which made her the first Egyptian woman to ever feature in a Grand Slam main draw. She ended 2020 by lifting the biggest title of her career at the $100k tournament in Charleston.
Besides receiving a nod from Liverpool star Mohamed Salah and gaining thousands of fans across the Arab world, Sherif landed a host of lucrative sponsorship deals with global brands like Vodafone, Peugeot and Allianz, thanks to her 2020 exploits.
At No 128 in the world – she’s the second-highest-ranked Arab at the moment – and with strong financial backing to boost her campaign, 2021 could very well be the year Sherif joins the game’s elite. Keep an eye out for her at the majors this year, as well as at the Tokyo Olympics.
Sara Al Senaani (UAE) – Para-athletics
The Emirati athlete made history at the Rio 2016 Paralympics when she became the first woman from the UAE to win a Paralympic or Olympic medal, securing bronze in the F33 shot put event at the Maracana stadium.
Al Senaani, who considers her compatriots powerlifting Paralympic champion Mohammed Khamis Khalaf and star footballer Ismail Matar to be her idols, is now eyeing a qualification spot at the Tokyo Paralympic Games and hopes to do even better than she did in Rio de Janeiro.
"Since I was a child, I have always been convinced that my disability would never stop me from achieving my goals, which is why I dedicated my time and effort towards my passion for sport," Al Senaani recently told the Emirati news agency WAM.
“I was certain this would lead me to raising my nation’s flag and that it would showcase my capabilities. I consider myself only halfway through my journey as an athlete because my next goal is the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.”
Al Senaani will spend the first quarter of 2021 contesting various competitions, including the Fazza Championships in Dubai, to lock down her place in Tokyo.
Maha Haddioui (Morocco) – Golf
The first Arab woman to gain playing privileges on the Ladies European Tour (LET), Haddioui is a golfing pioneer in the region. The 32-year-old competed at the Rio 2016 Olympics and is targeting a second showing at the Games this year.
During the tour’s hiatus because of the coronavirus, the Agadir-based golfer took the opportunity to make improvements to her game and managed to increase her average carry distance by 12 metres with her driver.
Despite the interruption and all the uncertainty that came with the pandemic, 2020 ended up being Haddioui’s best year on the LET as she closed out the season with an impressive fourth-place finish at the Spanish Open and ranked 15th overall on the Order of Merit.
Follow Haddioui over the next few months as she chases a second successive Olympics berth.
Ons Jabeur (Tunisia) – Tennis
The Tunisian history-maker started 2020 with a bang by becoming the first Arab woman to reach a grand slam quarter-final thanks to her tremendous run at the Australian Open that saw her take out the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Johanna Konta en route.
The 26-year-old upset world No 3 Karolina Pliskova the following month and kept up her form when the tour returned from its five-month hiatus to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros for the first time.
In total, Jabeur made the quarter-finals or better at five tournaments in 2020 and sits nicely at a career-high No 31 in the rankings.
Jabeur was nominated for the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award and has signed two eye-catching sponsorship deals over the past month.
She’s the highest-ranked Arab woman in history and is targeting a top-20 debut in 2021.
Hania El Hammamy (Egypt) – Squash
The 20-year-old Egyptian was named the PSA’s Young Player of the Year last season and she’s lived up to the hype so far, making the semi-finals or better in her last five events, including a stunning comeback victory over Nour El Tayeb to be crowned the youngest women’s champion of the PSA World Tour Finals last October.
With her compatriots Raneem El Welily and El Tayeb both hanging up their racquets, the fifth-ranked El Hammamy is now considered Egypt’s next big threat to Nour El Sherbini and Nouran Gohar at the top of the world rankings. Expect more good things from her in 2021.
Ray Bassil (Lebanon) – Shooting
The Lebanese trap shooter will be making her third consecutive Olympics appearance when she heads to Tokyo this summer.
The 32-year-old Bassil qualified for the Games by winning the women’s trap gold medal at the Asian Shooting Championships at the end of 2019.
A UNDP Youth and Gender Goodwill Ambassador, Bassil was initially planning to launch her own academy following the conclusion of Tokyo 2020. But when the Games got postponed, she grabbed the opportunity to inaugurate the RB Shooting Academy in order to cultivate the next generation of Lebanese shooters.
Bassil will get back into competition mode by taking part in some World Cups prior to her trip to Tokyo.
Giana Farouk (Egypt) – Karate
Karate will make its first appearance at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year and Farouk will carry the hopes of 100 million Egyptians when she competes as a serious medal contender in the -61kg Kumite competition.
Farouk, currently ranked No 2 in the world in her category, is a two-time world champion (2014 and 2016), and was recognised by the Egyptian Olympic Committee as the nation’s best female athlete of the year in 2020.
Before the pandemic led to the cancellation of competitions, Farouk had made the podium in all three of her appearances in 2020, including gold at the UFAK Championships and two bronze medals at the Premier League events in Dubai and Salzburg.
Dalma Malhas (Saudi Arabia) – Equestrian
A decade ago, Malhas made history when she won the bronze medal in showjumping at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. She was Saudi Arabia’s first ever female participant at an Olympic event and has since blazed a trail for women across the Kingdom.
She has been training with Olympic and world champion Roger Yves Bost since 2016 and continues to compete at some of the biggest shows across the globe.
The 28-year-old Malhas was recently appointed chairperson of the newly-founded athletes’ advisory committee at the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.
Ines Boubakri (Tunisia) – Fencing
The 32-year-old Tunisian is set to compete in her third Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer. At Rio 2016, Boubakri became the first fencer from her nation to win an Olympic medal when she clinched bronze in the women’s individual foil event.
She was also the first African or Arab woman to win an Olympic medal in fencing. Her husband, Erwann Le Pechoux, was part of the French squad that won silver in the team foil competition in Rio.
Before the pandemic halted sport worldwide, Boubakri qualified for Tokyo as one of the world’s top 16 fencers, and top-ranked African. She is a two-time bronze medallist at the World Championships and is now targeting the top of the podium in Japan.
"I won bronze at Rio but I didn't realise my dream, because my big dream is to win the Olympic gold medal," she told Tokyo2020.org. "When I lost in the semi-finals in Rio, I realised that I still had so much to give to achieve something better in Tokyo. I am working hard day and night to get the gold."
Bassant Hemida (Egypt) – Athletics
Hemida is Egypt’s fastest ever sprinter and is currently ranked No 18 in the world in the 200m event.
The 24-year-old reached the semi-finals at the World Championships in Doha 2019, a couple of months after taking the silver medal at the African Games in Morocco, where she smashed the national record by clocking 22.83sec. She won African bronze in the 100m three days earlier.
In September 2020, competing in her first meet in almost a year, the Alexandrian pulled off a sprint double by securing gold in both the 200m and 100m at the World Athletics Continental Tour Bronze in Kladno, Czech Republic. Her 11.23sec timing in the 100m saw her lower her own national record.
Hemida is not far off the Olympic qualification standard times for Tokyo and will be eyeing a first appearance at the Games this summer.