Saudi Arabia welcomes women sports fans to stadiums as social transformation proceeds

Female Saudi football enthusiasts joined their male counterparts January 12 at King Fahd Sports City in Riyadh.
Sunday 14/01/2018
Open doors. Female Saudi supporters of Al-Ahli queue at an entrance for families and women at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, on January 12. (Reuters)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia took further steps to narrow the gender gap, with women in the kingdom attending an offi­cial football match for the first time and a professional wom­en’s squash tournament — with a Saudi player — contested in Riyadh.

Female Saudi football enthusi­asts joined their male counterparts January 12 at King Fahd Sports City in Riyadh to see Jeddah’s Al-Ahli take on the Eastern Province’s Al- Batin.

“I’ve been counting the seconds since the announcement,” Jeddah-based football fan Sarah al-Ahmad said. Ahmad, who attended the January 13 football match in Jeddah between Al-Ittihad against Al-Hilal said female participation strength­ens the community and provides more recreational options.

“Why should we be different than anybody else?” she asked.

Memes and hashtags in sup­port of the event trended on so­cial media, including “the people welcome women to the stadiums.” There were also rumblings of dis­pleasure, many of which quoted Islamic scripture to support their argument, which encapsulated the kingdom’s struggle to embrace a moderate form of Islam.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz last Octo­ber vowed to return the kingdom to “moderate Islam” while speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. Saudi Arabia and the entire region saw the prolifera­tion of Al-Sahwa [awakening] pro­ject after 1979 for many reasons,” Crown Prince Mohammed said.

The Saudi crown prince was ref­erencing 1979’s Islamic Revolution in Iran and the siege of Mecca by terrorists that inspired a genera­tion of militants such as al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.

“We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe,” he said. “Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today and im­mediately.”

The kingdom also recently host­ed its first women’s professional squash tournament. The PSA Sau­di Women’s Masters, one of the sport’s most prestigious tourna­ments, saw Saudi wildcard entrant Riyadh-born Nada Abo Alnaja, 32, in the main draw.

Alnaja, who was the first Saudi woman to participate in the event, was eliminated in a first-round match by world No. 3-ranked Camille Serme. Still, Alnaja de­scribed the event as a dream come true.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I would one day stand here, in front of a Saudi crowd, playing Camille,” she told SquashSite.

“When I was hitting the ball for hours in my club in Jeddah, looking like a crazy woman, I would never have imagined where it would take me.”

There was also the announce­ment of the first woman to head a diplomatic mission in Saudi Ara­bia. Belgium’s envoy to the United Arab Emirates Dominique Mineur is to take up the post in Riyadh this summer.

Such developments are part of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform initia­tive, which looks to increase Saudi women’s roles in society and the labour market.

There were significant steps last year in that regard, including relax­ing restrictions on Saudi women, capped with a reversal of the fe­male driving ban. This was preced­ed by easing aspects of the king­dom’s male guardianship system, granting women independent ac­cess to government services, jobs, education and healthcare, without the need for prior consent.

The kingdom’s consultative council has been debating the issue of child marriages, with the goal of raising the minimum age require­ment of marriage to 18, even if the bride or her family consent.

If the motion becomes law, it would be the case for both men and women but the issue of child mar­riages mostly affects the kingdom’s female population.