Saudi Arabia — Conservative Saudi crown prince endorses female participation in Olympics

Sau­di Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has approved plans for the ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Mus­lim king­dom to send female ath­letes to the Olympics for the first time at the Lon­don Games in a move that coun­ters fears that he would be a less pro­gres­sive ruler than ail­ing King Abdul­lah, accord­ing to Sau­di-owned Al Hay­at news­pa­per.

In doing so, Prince Nayef, the kingdom’s long-serv­ing inte­ri­or min­is­ter who is wide­ly viewed as a con­ser­v­a­tive even by Sau­di stan­dards and is clos­er than the king to the country’s pow­er­ful, aus­tere Wah­habi cler­gy, is bow­ing to pres­sure from the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) that threat­ened to bar Sau­di Ara­bia from the Lon­don games if it failed to field female ath­letes.

The deci­sion is like­ly to be wel­comed by lib­er­al Saud­is who wor­ry that once he suc­ceeds King Abdul­lah he will prove to be more sus­cep­ti­ble to demands of the cler­gy who adhere to the teach­ings of the 18th cen­tu­ry puri­tan war­rior-priester, Mohammed Abdul Wah­hab to reverse the process of grad­ual polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social reforms ini­ti­at­ed by King Abdul­lah. In an illustration’s of the clergy’s con­ser­vatism, Sau­di Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Abdul­lah recent­ly called for the destruc­tion of all church­es in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la.

The deci­sion by Prince Nayef is like­ly part of a con­cert­ed gov­ern­ment effort to fend off a pos­si­ble pop­u­lar upris­ing in the king­dom sim­i­lar to those sweep­ing large parts of the Mid­dle East and North Africa by cater­ing to youth sen­ti­ments and grow­ing female demand for sport­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Prince Nayef earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a hard­lin­er most recent­ly for his crack­down on Al Qae­da mil­i­tants in the king­dom. By the same token, he over­saw a large­ly suc­cess­ful reha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram that guid­ed the return to soci­ety of for­mer Al Qae­da oper­a­tives.

Al Hay­at said that Prince Nayef’s approval was con­di­tioned on women com­pet­ing in sports that “meet the stan­dards of women’s decen­cy and don’t con­tra­dict Islam­ic laws.” It was not imme­di­ate­ly clear which sports the crown prince had in mind.

Al Hay­at report­ed Prince Nayef’s deci­sion a day after the IOC report­ed that progress had been made in nego­ti­a­tions with Sau­di Olympic offi­cials on send­ing female ath­letes and offi­cials to the games.

Sau­di Ara­bia along­side Qatar and Brunei has nev­er includ­ed women in its Olympic teams. IOC offi­cials believe that Qatar and Brunei will also be field­ing women ath­letes in Lon­don for the first time.

“The IOC is con­fi­dent that Sau­di Ara­bia is work­ing to include women ath­letes and offi­cials at the Olympic Games in Lon­don in accor­dance with the inter­na­tion­al fed­er­a­tions’ rules,” the IOC said.

Ear­li­er, IOC Pres­i­dent Jacques Rogge said in an inter­view with The Asso­ci­at­ed Press that he was “opti­mistic” that Sau­di Ara­bia would send women to Lon­don. “It depends on the pos­si­bil­i­ties of qual­i­fi­ca­tions, stan­dards of dif­fer­ent ath­letes. We’re still dis­cussing the var­i­ous options,” Mr. Rogge said.

He said a deci­sion would be final­ized with­in a month to six weeks, but “we are opti­mistic that this is going to hap­pen.”

The appar­ent IOC suc­cess in nudg­ing Sau­di Ara­bia into com­ply­ing with the committee’s char­ter con­trasts stark­ly with world soc­cer body FIFA’s fail­ure to hold the king­dom to its oblig­a­tion. Sau­di Ara­bia fields a men’s soc­cer team but restricts if not bans women’s soc­cer.

FIFA’s fail­ure to pres­sure Sau­di Ara­bia also con­trasts with its recent effort to ensure that obser­vant Mus­lim women can play pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer by lift­ing its ban on women wear­ing the hijab in favour of a head­dress that ful­fils the cul­tur­al needs of Mus­lim play­ers and meets safe­ty and secu­ri­ty stan­dards.

Inter­na­tion­al human rights group Human Rights Watch last month accused Sau­di Ara­bia of kow­tow­ing to asser­tions by the country’s pow­er­ful con­ser­v­a­tive Mus­lim cler­ics that female sports con­sti­tute “steps of the dev­il” that will encour­age immoral­i­ty and reduce women’s chances of meet­ing the require­ments for mar­riage.

The Human Rights Watch charges con­tained in a report enti­tled “’Steps of the Dev­il’ came on the heels of the king­dom back­track­ing on a plan to build its first sta­di­um espe­cial­ly designed to allow women who are cur­rent­ly barred from attend­ing soc­cer match­es because of the kingdom’s strict pub­lic gen­der seg­re­ga­tion to watch games. The planned sta­di­um was sup­posed to open in 2014.

The report urged the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee to require Sau­di Ara­bia to legal­ize women’s sports as a con­di­tion for its par­tic­i­pa­tion in Olympic games.

Sau­di women despite offi­cial dis­cour­age­ment have in recent years increas­ing­ly been push­ing the enve­lope at times with the sup­port of more lib­er­al mem­bers of the rul­ing Al Saud fam­i­ly. The kingdom’s tooth­less Shu­ra or Advi­so­ry Coun­cil has issued reg­u­la­tions for women’s sports clubs, but con­ser­v­a­tive reli­gious forces often have the final say in whether they are imple­ment­ed or not.

In a sign that efforts to allow and encour­age women’s sports are at best hap­haz­ard and sup­port­ed only by more lib­er­al ele­ments in the gov­ern­ment, the king­dom last year hired a con­sul­tant to devel­op its first nation­al sports plan — for men only. There is no legal ban in on women’s sports in Sau­di Ara­bia where the bar­ri­ers for women are root­ed in tra­di­tion and the kingdom’s puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam­ic law.

The push­ing of the enve­lope comes as women are increas­ing­ly chal­leng­ing oth­er aspects of the kingdom’s gen­der apartheid against the back­drop of sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent in Sau­di soci­ety over a host of issues.

Man­al al-Sharif was detained in May of last year for nine days after she video­taped her­self flout­ing the ban on women dri­ving by get­ting behind a steer­ing wheel and dri­ving. She was released only after sign­ing a state­ment promis­ing that she would stop agi­tat­ing for women’s rights.

A group of women launched ear­li­er this year a legal chal­lenge to the ban assert­ing that it had no base in Islam­ic law.

Oppo­si­tion to women’s sports is rein­forced by the fact that phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion class­es are banned in state-run Sau­di girl’s schools. Pub­lic sports facil­i­ties are exclu­sive­ly for men and sports asso­ci­a­tions offer com­pe­ti­tions and sup­port for ath­letes in inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tions only to men.

The issue of women’s sport has at time sparked sharp debate with con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics con­demn­ing it as cor­rupt­ing and satan­ic and charg­ing that it spreads deca­dence. Con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics have warned that run­ning and jump­ing can dam­age a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of get­ting mar­ried.

One group of reli­gious schol­ars argued that swim­ming, soc­cer and bas­ket­ball were too like­ly to reveal “pri­vate parts,” which includes large areas of the body. Anoth­er reli­gious schol­ar said it could lead to “min­gling with men.”

To be fair, less con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics have come out in favour of women’s sports as well as less restric­tions on women. In addi­tion, the new­ly appoint­ed head of the kingdom’s reli­gious vig­i­lantes is report­ed to favour relax­ation of the ban on the mix­ing of the sex­es.

In defi­ance of the obsta­cles to their right to engage in sports, women have in recent years qui­et­ly been estab­lish­ing soc­cer and oth­er sports teams using exten­sions of hos­pi­tals and health clubs as their base.

Prince Nayef’s deci­sion has revived hope that 18-year old equestri­enne Dal­ma Rush­di Mal­has who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Sin­ga­pore Youth Olympics in which she par­tic­i­pat­ed at her own accord would be among the first Sau­di women ath­letes to com­pete at an Olympic games. Expec­ta­tions that she would be com­pet­ing in Lon­don were dashed recent­ly when the Saud­is qual­i­fied an all-men team qual­i­fied for London’s jump­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.