Saudi Arabia will let its female athletes compete in the Olympics for the first time, its embassy in London said. Until now, Saudi Arabia was one of three countries that did not allow women to participate in the games. The other two — Qatar and Brunei — also reversed course this year and said they will send female athletes to the London games, which begin July 27.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wishes to reaffirm its support for the sublime meanings reflected by Olympic Games and the cherished values of excellence, friendship and respect that they represent,” the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement announcing the decision.
The International Olympic Committee had been pressing Saudi Arabia to allow women to compete and act as officials, and said in March that talks were going well.
“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 committee said March 19.
The decision is a rare concession for a kingdom where women are banned from driving.
They also cannot vote or hold public office, though that will change in 2015.
Women in Saudi Arabia also cannot marry, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, who usually is the father or husband. Much of public life is segregated by gender.
When it came to sports, female athletes were barred from the Olympic Games because they would be participating in front of a mixed-gender crowd.
The Saudi Embassy did not say what prompted the kingdom to change its mind. Officials in Saudi Arabia could not immediately be reached for comment.
The embassy statement added that women who qualify for the games will be allowed to participate, raising questions how many female athletes will be ready at such short notice.
Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who became the first Saudi woman to compete in the youth Olympics, praised the decision, calling it “a dream come true.”
“This just opens so many doors for women,” Malhas, an equestrian, told CNN International.
Malhas said she won’t be competing in the London games this summer, “but I look forward to giving my best and I’m determined to keep on trying for the next games, hopefully.”
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report in which it said the Saudi government’s policy of banning women’s participation in national competitive sports reflects the “predominant conservative view that opening sports to women and girls will lead to immorality: ‘steps of the devil,’ as one prominent religious scholar put it.”
In 2009 and 2010, the country closed private gyms for women, and its schools’ curriculum does not include physical education classes for women, the rights group said.
And while the Saudi National Olympic Committee selects athletes to represent it in competition, the committee does not have a women’s section.
Saudi Arabia’s 153 official sports club are also closed to women, Human Rights Watch said. The only exception is the female basketball section of Jeddah United, a private sports company that is not among the official sports clubs, the group said.
For its part, Qatar will send three women to London this year: a shooter, a swimmer and a runner.
Brunei will send a woman who will compete in hurdling.
* CNN, June 25, 2012