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.
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.