By James M. Dorsey
Saudi Arabia’s secretive ruling family is mulling over allowing women to attend football matches. No Saudi official has suggested that the controversial issue is under discussion but if past experience is any indication, a series of statements and denials suggests that a debate is underway.
The debate would be a revival of closed door discussions that had been waging on and off for the past two years. Attempting to assess debates within the secretive family is not dissimilar to Kremlinology, the speculative science analysts developed in an effort to understand the inner workings of the Soviet leadership.
Granting women sporting rights in the kingdom that in most parts of the world would be taken for granted takes on added significance with the Saudi Football Federation’s recent suggestion that the kingdom will compete against the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Thailand and Iran for the right to host the 2019 Asia Cup; there have been hints that Saudi Arabia may field a serious candidate for next year’s election of a new head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the acquisition by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad of a 50 percent stake in third tier English club Sheffield United.
The moves that would project Saudi Arabia on the global football map are not without risk, as Qatar and Abu Dhabi have learnt the hard way. Qatar had expected to be cheered when it won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, but has since had to deal with a barrage of criticism, negative publicity and demands that the tournament’s venue be moved. Recent improvements in the material conditions of foreign labor, who constitute a majority of the Gulf state’s population, are the result of a threat by international trade unions and human rights groups to boycott the World Cup and companies involved in the construction of infrastructure related to the tournament if Qatar fails to adhere to international labor standards.
Human Rights Watch last month accused the UAE of using its ownership of English Premier League club, Manchester City, and move into the United States’ Major League Football to polish an image increasingly tarnished by autocratic and counterrevolutionary policies, including the recent sentencing of scores of dissidents on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, as well as the UAE support for the military coup that ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.
A country that is developing its first national sports plan for men only lacks physical education for girls in public schools, forces women’s football clubs to operate in a legal and social nether land bans women from driving, travelling without authorization from a male relative and working in a host of professions; and when it was forced last year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to field women athletes, it chose two minor expatriates, making Saudi Arabia particularly vulnerable to criticism.
In minor concessions, Saudi Arabia’s religious police said earlier this year that women would be allowed to ride bikes and motorbikes in recreational areas provided that they were properly dressed and accompanied by a male relative. Authorities also announced that they would allow girls’ physical education in private schools as long as it was in line with Islamic law.
Saudi Football Federation (SFF) president Ahmed Eid Alharbi, a storied former goalkeeper who became the kingdom’s first elected sports official after his predecessor, is a member of the ruling family and was forced under fan pressure to step down, has hinted at the economic impact of allowing women to attend football matches.
SAFF can make it. Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision,” he said.
Prospects for women’s attendance were further thrown into doubt in the past week when Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, the head of the youth welfare authority (who resigned as head of the national football body) and the SFF denied that women would be granted access to the King Fahad Stadium in Riyadh during last week’s friendly game against New Zealand. The denial was issued after the stadium’s manager, Sulaiman al-Yousef, manager of King Fahad Stadium, announced that foreign women and children would be permitted to watch the match. A picture on the website of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network of a few women and children in the stadium appeared to counter the denial.
It would not be the first time that Saudi Arabia succumbed to pressure. Protests by Sweden in 2006 in advance of a friendly game in Riyadh persuaded the kingdom to allow Swedish women to attend if they were separated from men by seating them in areas reserved for the media.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.