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Green light to Saudi women's participation in Olympics

Saudi Embassy in London issues a statement announcing the controversial move

Saudi Arabia's Jeddah United
Image Credit: Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Jeddah United warm up before their friendly basketball game against Jordan's Al Reyadeh in Amman in this April 21, 2009 file photo.

Dubai: Just about a month before the Olympic Games kick off in London, Saudi Arabia has taken the historic step to allow women to participate for the first time as part of the official team.

The decision was announced in a three-paragraph statement issued by the Saudi Embassy in London on Sunday evening. 

Saudi Arabia  “wishes to reaffirm its support for the sublime meanings reflected by Olympic Games. It also supports the objectives of the Olympic movement to hold the games in an atmosphere of the fair competition without the burdens of politics or racism,” said the statement, a copy of which was obtained by Gulf News.

“Therefore, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the Games.”

‘Secret meetings’

An embassy official declined to provide further details on the decision. However, a BBC report quoting senior Saudi officials said the move came after “secret meetings” during which “a consensus was reached in mid-June between the King, the Crown Prince, the Foreign Minister, leading religious cleric, the Grand Mufti and others, to overturn the ban [on women’s participation]”.

Some conservative religious leading figures are against allowing women to participate in the games. While some welcomed the move, which laid to rest doubts that the Saudi team could be disqualified on gender discrimination basis, others considered it insufficient.

“This is an excellent move,” said Saudi writer and woman activist Hala Al Dosari. “It was not expected because there were many objections to it. It is clear that local and international calls brought about a result,” she told Gulf News, adding that it is equally important for Saudi Arabia to give more attention to women in sport.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to practise any kind of sport in official buildings. Practice and exercise is conducted in privately owned places and by personal initiative, activists noted.

“I think this is a victory not only for women, but also for other causes,” said Lina Khaled Al Maenna, a captain of a basketball team and co-founder of the Jeddah United Sport, the first such company for women sports in the country.

In the absence of high numbers of “qualified” Saudi women to participate, some anticipate that show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas would be the only women in the team. Malhas won bronze in Youth Olympics two years ago in Singapore.

Her participation then was not through nomination by her country, but rather on personal initiative. “Even if there is only one woman, we will break the barrier,” Al Dosari added.

But to Ali Al Ahmad, a Saudi opposition figure in Washington who spearheaded a three-yea campaign titled “No woman. No play”, it is not enough. “Even if they allow a few hundred of women, the problem will still be there.  There are millions of women who are not practising sports,” he told Gulf News.