Women’s rights advocate to head Saudi women’s sports body
LONDON - Saudi Arabia has set up a new government body to oversee women’s sports, a possible indication of easing restrictions on female athletes in the conservative kingdom.
What made the announcement more ground-breaking was the appointment of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist and well-known advocate of women’s rights in the kingdom, as undersecretary for women affairs at the General Authority for Sports.
Physical education is not taught in Saudi state schools for girls, but is part of the curriculum in private schools attended by children of the more affluent in Saudi society.
The news comes as Saudi Arabia sent four female athletes to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Saudi women first competed in the Olympics in the 2012 London Games.
The female athletes representing Saudi Arabia at Rio are: Lubna al-Omair (fencing), Wujud Fahmi (judo), Sarah Attar (800-metre run) and Cariman Abu al-Jadail (100-metre sprint).
Reema, 41, who is the daughter of the kingdom’s longest-serving ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is a graduate of the George Washington University in the United States with a degree in museum studies.
She has had a distinguished career in both business and charity work. She is a member of the global policy advisory board of Uber, a firm in which Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund recently invested $3.5 billion and that has given women in Saudi Arabia more freedom to manoeuvre around the country where they are banned from driving.
In 2011, as chief executive officer of Alfa International, which owns the kingdom’s branch of Harvey Nichols department store, Reema broke what was considered a social taboo by hiring women in the Saudi retail sector for the first time. She also provided travel accommodation and a day-care centre for working mothers.
In an interview with business magazine Fast Company, Reema highlighted some of her motivations in championing female employment in Saudi Arabia. “You cannot have half of your population not working,” she told the magazine, which named her Most Creative Person of the Year for 2014.
“The second a woman is responsible for her own finances, she’ll want to explore more of the world for herself and become less dependent,” she added.
Reema’s philanthropic endeavours are also well-documented. A founding member of the Riyadh-based Zahra Breast Cancer Awareness Association, the princess has been involved in a number of high-profile programmes to increase awareness among Saudi women about the disease.
In 2012, Reema led a team of Saudi women on a climbing trip of Mount Everest as a part of a breast cancer awareness campaign.
Reema’s initiatives also won the kingdom mention in the Guinness World Records on two occasions, thanks to the work of Saudi women. In 2010, 4,000 Saudi women in the Red Sea city of Jeddah created the largest human breast cancer ribbon. Five years later, another initiative by Reema broke the same record with the participation of 8,264 women.