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.

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →