By Joshua Yasmeh
Last week, Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal laid out his country’s sporting priorities in a pivotal interview with Arab News. Emphasizing the effects athletic competition can have on regional peace and understanding, the development of civil society, and the empowerment of women, the high-ranking Saudi official signaled a shift in his country’s treatment of once ostracized foreign athletes.
Indeed, the Kingdom has indicated an openness to welcoming athletes from countries with weak diplomatic ties. Saudi officials also have also suggested their country is open to participating in 2022 World Cup in Qatar. This comes despite years of hostility between Riyadh and Doha. Furthermore, in his Arab News interview, Prince Abdulaziz pushed back against critics who he says unfairly deride multi-nation athletic competition as “sportswashing” designed to pull international attention away from domestic strife. For Saudi Arabia sports is a clear driver of societal reforms.
For example despite the slow progress on gender equality at home, Saudi sporting has begun empowering women in remarkable ways as the Kingdom works to facilitate female sports competition. Aside from sports, women have been making slow but steady strides in other areas of civil society. Until 2018, it was illegal for Saudi women to drive. There were of course exceptions in remote Bedouin communities, but, by and large, the ban was uniformly enforced. But change came fast. In 2019, Saudi Arabia hosted a Formula E Event.
One of the drivers was a woman.
There’s been modest gains in education and career opportunities as well. Racing participants took part in an event encouraging Saudi girls to participate in STEM fields, an integral part of the post-industrial economy.
However, perhaps the most auspicious milestone came when Saudi officials began introducing women into the all-important international sport of football (or soccer as Americans call it).
“We had zero national [soccer] teams, female national teams,” said Prince Adulaziz. “Today we have 23 [women’s] national teams that are participating in the name of the country.” In fact, a Saudi women’s football league was recently launched, playing earlier this month—a national first.
“We had 32 sports federations in 2017,” the Prince stressed, whereas “today we have 64 sports federations—38 of [which] have female board members that represent female sports within these federations.”
The progress of women in Saudi Arabia over the last several years reveals the remarkable transformations in the Kingdom, carrying it from a nation isolated from the world in many key respects to a major player in the global cultural landscape from which changes in the sporting world has served as a canary in a coalmine to greater social advancement.
We can expect an acceleration in these trends, not only as Saudi Arabia seeks to define a future beyond oil as the country sets its sights on developing a modern 21st century economy.
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