Born in 1940 in Al-Rus, Saudi Arabia. He is married and has several children.
He obtained a BSc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas, USA (1965), and an MSc in Mechanical Engineering (1968) and a PhD in Applied Mechanics (1971) both from Stanford University, USA.
He joined King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and became Vice-Dean (1974-1975) and then Dean (1975-1976) of the College of Engineering (1974-1975), and then Vice-President for Graduate Studies and Research (1976-1984). He was appointed President of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Riyadh in 1984 (this institution can be considered as the main focal point for scientific and technological research in Saudi Arabia). A post which he held for 20 years.
Prof. Al-Athel is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, the UN Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development, ICSU/UNESCO distinguished fellowship programs, the Saudi Working Committee for Education Policy, and the Scientific Committee of the Pio Manza International Research Centre. He has also been a member of the Executive Committee of the OIC Ministerial Committee of Scientific and Technological Co-operation (COMSTECH).
He is the author of more than 50 articles on science, engineering and technology published in various international journals and publications. He has written a book on engineering structures, and has translated three others.
Prof. Al-Athel is a Founding Fellow of the World Academy of Sciences and served as its Vice-President (1986-1990).