Saudi fan walking across desert to reach FIFA World Cup in Qatar

Abdullah Alsulmi is walking from Jeddah to Doha to attend Saudi Arabia’s opening game against Argentina in November.

Saudi trekker Abdullah Alsulmi crosses a desert area near al-Khasrah, some 350 kilometres west of Riyadh [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]
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The idea hit Abdullah Alsulmi earlier this year, while he was watching a television show in which a senior Qatari official promised an “exceptional” experience at the upcoming World Cup.

His excitement building, the 33-year-old Saudi trekker recalls thinking: “I will go to Doha no matter what, even if I have to walk!”

It was an unlikely beginning to what has become an audacious adventure dismissed by some of Alsulmi’s relatives as “crazy”: a two-month, 1,600-kilometre (1,000-mile) solo trek from his native Jeddah to the Qatari capital.

Alsulmi says the journey, faithfully documented for his thousands of Snapchat followers, is meant to highlight regional enthusiasm for the first World Cup in the Middle East – which Saudi officials have pitched as a milestone “for all Arabs”.

“We want to support the World Cup,” Alsulmi said last week as he sheltered from the midday sun near roadside shrubs in the town of al-Khasrah, 340 kilometres southwest of Riyadh.

Wearing a wide-brim hat and a backpack to which he has affixed Saudi Arabian and Qatari flags, he said: “I consider myself like a Qatari who is very interested in this World Cup and its success.”

Sun and scorpions

Alsulmi has experience with extended treks in Canada and Australia, where he used to live, yet those pale in comparison to the rigours of traversing the Arabian Peninsula.

He typically sets out at sunrise and walks until 10 or 10:30am, but then the heat forces him to break for a few hours before resuming in the afternoon and continuing until sundown.

Occasionally he walks at night to maintain his goal of around 35 kilometres per day.

To keep his load light, Alsulmi subsists on food he can buy at petrol stations, often chicken and rice, while showering and washing his clothes at mosques.

His social media posts capture details of life on the trail, from the mundane to the menacing: his nightly search for a spot to sleep, and the time he eyed a scorpion dozing dangerously close to his tent.

He also records conversations with Saudis he meets along the way, many of whom offer snacks and juice to keep him going.

“There are moments of ups and downs, but when I meet people and hear these sweet words – ‘We will follow you on your account and support you’ – this encourages me to finish,” he said.

“This year we have good players. The coach is the great French coach [Herve] Renard,” he said.

“We expect and hope that this year the team will deliver an exceptional performance.”