Saudi Arabia to send token woman to Olympics to evade sanctions

Sau­di Ara­bia in a bid to avoid being barred from the 2012 Lon­don Olympics has agreed to send a token female eques­tri­an to the tour­na­ment to rep­re­sent the con­ser­v­a­tive king­dom that effec­tive­ly dis­cour­ages women’s sports.

The deci­sion fol­lowed a warn­ing last year by Ani­ta DeFrantz, the chair of the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Com­mis­sion, that Sau­di Ara­bia along­side Qatar and Brunei could be barred if they did not send for the first time at least one female ath­lete to the Lon­don Olympics.

An ear­li­er agree­ment by Qatar, the only oth­er coun­try whose indige­nous pop­u­la­tion are large­ly Wah­habis, adher­ents of a puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam pre­dom­i­nant in Sau­di Ara­bia, to field a women’s team in Lon­don increased the pres­sure on the king­dom to fol­low suit.

The deci­sion how­ev­er is like­ly to prove less con­tro­ver­sial in Qatar than Sau­di Ara­bia. Qatar has far few­er of Sau­di Arabia’s sharp­er edges such as a ban on women’s dri­ving, strict gen­der seg­re­ga­tion and a cul­ture that enshrines male dom­i­nance. .

Sau­di Arabia’s most like­ly female ath­lete is 18-year old equestri­enne Dal­ma Rush­di Mal­has who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Sin­ga­pore Youth Olympics. At the time, Ms. Mal­has was not offi­cial­ly del­e­gat­ed to com­pete in Sin­ga­pore on behalf of the king­dom.

“I didn’t know whether I was allowed but when I got invit­ed of course I didn’t think twice and went at my own expense, I didn’t care much about me being there as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Sau­di Ara­bia, because any­one could prob­a­bly do that. But get­ting a medal was the key, and that’s not easy for any­one, and I want­ed that — and only that gives recog­ni­tion to my coun­try,” she told the Arab News.

Despite offi­cial dis­cour­age­ment women have 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.

Nonethe­less the man­date grant­ed to a Span­ish con­sul­tan­cy ear­li­er this year to devel­op the kingdom’s first nation­al sports plan is exclu­sive­ly for men’s sports.

The push­ing of the enve­lope comes as women are prov­ing to be the most vis­i­ble in chal­leng­ing the kingdom’s gen­der apartheid against the back­drop of sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent. Man­al al-Sharif was detained in May for nine days after she video­taped her­self flout­ing the rules by get­ting behind a steer­ing wheel and dri­ving. She was released only after sign­ing a state­ment promis­ing a that she would stop agi­tat­ing for women’s rights.

Dis­crep­an­cy about women’s sports is rein­forced by the fact that phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion class­es are banned in state-run Sau­di girl’s schools Women’s games and marathons are often can­celled when more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the cler­gy gets wind of them.

The issue of women’s sport has at time sparked sharp debate with cler­ics con­demn­ing it as cor­rupt­ing and satan­ic and charg­ing that it spreads deca­dence. Cler­ics warned that run­ning and jump­ing can dam­age a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of get­ting mar­ried. In defi­ance, women have qui­et­ly been estab­lish­ing soc­cer and oth­er sports teams using exten­sions of hos­pi­tals and health clubs as their base.

Field­ing a female eques­tri­an at the Lon­don Olympics may take Sau­di Ara­bia off the IOC’s hook, but changes lit­tle on the ground in the king­dom itself. That remains an uphill bat­tle par­tic­u­lar­ly with an age­ing and ail­ing top lead­er­ship that this year has sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased the reli­gious establishment’s fund­ing as part of its bid to shield Sau­di Ara­bia from the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep­ing the region.

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.