From The Vaults

12 December 2022
Rugby in the Middle East by Richard Thom

This following is an extract from 'Dhahran Rugby Union Football Club (DRUFC) An unofficial history 1973 - 1989' by Richard Thom.

Early Rugby

Rugby in the Middle East was a surprising phenomenon. Its beginnings from the sand pitches for which it is famed now stand as a testament to the spirit and ingenuity of the players that embodies the game in this region. From its humble origins to the dizzy heights of world rugby, the development of this beautiful game is a truly remarkable story. The first indication of the game being played was over half a century ago in the previous millennium.

The employees of the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), in need of recreation, created a desert clearing for cricket, known as the Magwa Oval in 1946. This changed to the Magwa Cricket Club a year later, then renamed the Kuwait Cricket Club before finally settling on Hubara Cricketers. The first reports of rugby in the Arabian Peninsula were in 1947 when British military personnel played KOC members in Kuwait.

1977-78 Dhahran team

By 1974, rugby clubs had also been established in the UAE (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah), Saudi Arabia (Dhahran), Qatar (Doha), Bahrain, and later in Muscat. In the same year, the GRFU (Gulf Rugby Football Union) was founded under the umbrella of the English RFU, along with a Referee's Association.

The amended constitution of 1979 states the founder clubs as Abu Dhabi, Dubai Exiles, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah Wanderers (all in the UAE) - Bahrain Rugby Football Club, Doha Rugby Union Club, and as we have seen Dhahran Rugby Football Union Club in Saudi Arabia. Bahrain held the post of Chair, Dubai that of Secretary whilst other duties were farmed out between the other members. Meetings were often be held during Dubai 7s and Muscat 7s tournaments then later at the Sharjah Floodlit and Bahrain XVs.

To begin with, many matches were played on sand (and rock) but today almost all are played on grass pitches.

1978-79 Bahrain Plate

A Gulf League was first established in the 1975/76 season, sponsored by the Gulf Mirror with teams playing for the Gulf Mirror Coffee Pot. Games were arranged on an ad hoc basis with very little opportunity of a return game. Dubai and Bahrain regularly played each other at home and away, as did Dubai and Sharjah. The League champions were often determined in an informal manner. The season's victors were often decided upon by these head-to-head matches and any other games that teams were fortunate to play.

The GRFU Handbook of 1985 described "Dhahran as founded in 1974. Oldest club in Saudi Arabia and founder member of the GRFU League. Travel costs and immigration formalities dictated their withdrawal from the League in December 1984. Still play in GRFU Cup and most of the Gulf tournaments. Leaders in Saudi Arabian club rugby. Yet to win a major title in Gulf Rugby. Field only one team in Gulf competitions. Have toured Manila and Singapore."

In 1989 the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) was subsequently formed with the emphasis on the Union being the Arabian Gulf and, in its own right, became a member of the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) (now known as World Rugby) in 1990. Through its regional development program, the AGRFU also helped facilitate the entry of Lebanon and Jordan into international rugby.

The AGRFU played in the Hong Kong 7s in 1992 and the Rugby World Cup 7s Qualifying Tournament in Catania, Sicily in 1993, its first representative international competition. This was followed by its first 'home' international against Kenya, held in Dubai, in 1995.

World Rugby's governance restructuring project for the West Asia region resulted in the AGRFU being broken up into separate unions for each member country. The UAE Rugby Federation was the first to be formed in 2009 and the UAE national team inherited the former Arabian Gulf team's world ranking.

Other national unions for Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were subsequently created. Today the sport in Saudi Arabia is licensed by the Saudi government and is a member of Asia Rugby. Its president Prince Sultan al Saud and 6 teams currently play in Saudi Arabia.

About the Author - Richard Thom first started playing rugby as a young boy in Scotland playing for the 1st XV at prep school, and then the Colts and 1st XV at Strathallan. He rediscovered rugby in Saudi Arabia, and not only played for the 1st and 2nd XVs on the wing but helped to keep the Club on track as Treasurer and Chairman. Moving to Japan after Saudi Richard continued to play for the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YCAC) as second row for the 2nd XV, a far cry from the wing in Saudi.

He has edited 'Dhahran Rugby Union Football Club (DRUFC): An unofficial history 1973-1989', a booklet produced to mark the approximate 50th anniversary of the club, depending on what year you believe the club to have been established.