Girls Unallowed: Saudi Keeps Ban on Women in Football Stadiums

The Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) denied that it will allow women to attend matches in Riyadh after an official at King Fahad Stadium said they are ready to welcome foreign families only at a friendly between the national team and New Zealand today.

“SAFF confirms that there has been no official announcement to allow families to enter King Fahad Stadium in the capital Riyadh to attend matches at the friendly OSN Cup that will begin tonight (Thursday),” said a statement published on the federation website. “There is no truth to reports circulated over the past hours that families will be allowed to attend matches.”

The denial from SAFF came after Sulaiman al-Yousef, manager of King Fahad Stadium, told online news site Sabq that while the ban on Saudi women at stadiums remains in place, foreign women and children will be allowed to attend the games. “The stadium is fully ready to deal with family attendance,” he said, adding that special security measures has been taken and that the northern gate has been dedicated for them.

The OSN Cup is a friendly football tournament organized by SAFF and sponsored by television network OSN. The first edition of the tournament will feature Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Arab Emirates.

President of SAFF Ahmed Eid said last May that it was not up to him to allow women to attend football matches in Saudi Arabia, adding that this decision must come from higher authorities in the kingdom.

“A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither me nor SAFF can make it,” Eid told al-Riyadh newspaper at the time. “Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that applies a strict interpretation of Islam with many restrictions on women. But the country sent two women to the Olympic Games for the first time last year in London in a step that was described by the president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge as a “major boost for gender equality.”

In 2006 Saudi Arabia backed down on barring women from attending a friendly football match against Sweden in Riyadh after protest from Swedish authorities.

When questioned about it in parliament, then Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said “it is important that Sweden very clearly speaks out when women are discriminated against.”

The Saudis later assured the Swedish football association and the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh that everyone is welcome, including Saudi women. Some Swedish women were seen attending the match, but they were seated in the media area away from the regular stands.

UPDATE: Despite repeated denial by Saudi officials, including Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, President of Youth Welfare, it appears that some Saudi women did attend the match against New Zealand. Al Arabiya posted a photo late on Thursday showing a woman in niqab and two girls sitting next to her in the blue seats of King Fahad Stadium in Riyadh.

Photo of New Zealand football fan courtesy of Alejandro De La Cruz via Flickr

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Sovereign Decision: Saudi Arabia Not Ready to Open Football Stadiums to Women Yet

President of the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) denied media reports suggesting that the federation will allow women to attend matches in stadiums, saying this decision was not his to make.

“A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither me nor SAFF can make it,” Ahmed Eid told al-Riyadh newspaper. “Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”

Eid added that there are studies being conducted to explore the possibility of building boxes at some stadiums that can be rented by businesses and families so women can attend football games. Eid said these boxes could be built in the new King Abdullah Sports City stadium when it opens in 2014, and also at Prince Abdullah al-Faisal stadium that is being renovated, both in the coastal city of Jeddah on the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that applies a strict interpretation of Islam with many restrictions on women. But the country sent two women to the Olympic Games for the first time last year in London after pressure from human rights organizations. Wojdan Shahrkhani competed in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, praised Saudi Arabia’s late decision to send women to the games. “This is a major boost for gender equality,” he said.

The Saudi government recently announced that it will allow physical education at private girls’ schools under supervision from the Ministry of Education. Some private schools for girls already offer sports classes, but the decision is expected to regulate an existing practice and open the door to other schools to do the same.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to remove hurdles on women sports. “Sports for Saudi girls in schools will have a lasting impact on their empowerment, education and professional opportunities,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives for HRW, in a statement. “Doing away with the ban on sports will allow a generation of girls to compete and to work within the kingdom to pull down hurdles.”

Football is the most popular sport in the country, and SAFF is understandably cautious about the issue of allowing women into stadium. Ahmed Eid is the first elected president of SAFF and also the first non-royal to take this office. A former goalkeeper for Jeddah-based al-Ahli club, Eid is considered a reformer and a supporter of women sports.

Writing in Arab News earlier this year, columnist Sabria S. Jawhar said Eid as “probably the single most important male ally that Saudi female athletes have to get a women’s football team up and running.”

Photo courtesy of Waleed Alzuhair via Flickr

The Privatization of Saudi Football

Rory Jones reports for the Wall Street Journal:

In Saudi Arabia, attendance at live matches is falling, soccer stadiums are in disrepair, and the national team won only one game in this year’s Gulf Cup—a debacle that led to the ouster of Dutch legend Frank Riijkaard as the Saudi team coach.

Now, with Saudi soccer fans focused as ever on the European game, the Saudi government body responsible for sport is looking to revitalize the national game with a radical plan to fully privatize the country’s top soccer league.

The benefits and costs of privatization have been studied for a few years now, but the change is not imminent. As the story notes in its conclusion, we are still at least few more years away from getting there. Meanwhile, the national team is still struggling and performance in the local competitions is in decline.

El Clásico in Mecca?

Spanish sports newspaper Marca reports that Real Madrid and Barcelona will play a friendly match in the holy city of Mecca in 2016 as part of the opening ceremony for the new high-speed train line that will be built by a Spanish consortium in western Saudi Arabia. Some people were surprised because they said non-Muslims are forbidden from entering Mecca. This is not accurate. Only the haram area of Mecca is off limits to non-Muslims. The main stadium in Mecca, King Abdulaziz Sports City, is located outside that area and it is regularly used for the Saudi Professional League where many non-Muslim footballers are recruited by Saudi teams. So in theory the a Real Madrid-Barcelona friendly can be played there. However, it is more likely that, if the report about the friendly is accurate, the game would be played in King Abdullah Sports City which is still under construction in the city of Jeddah nearby, the capital of Mecca Province.

Can Saudi Football Rise Again?

Watching Saudi Arabia play against Yemen in the Gulf Cup of Nations yesterday, Saudi fans went through a sea of fluctuating emotions: anxiety, elation, frustration and finally relief as their team snatched a 2-0 victory over an opponent classified as the weakest in the competition. This should have been a game where Saudis could cruise to an easy win, but for the thousands of spectators who watched it did not feel easy at all. Saudi Arabia now must defeat Kuwait in their upcoming game Saturday if they want to advance to the next round in the tournament.

Saudi football has seen better days. Most people still fondly remember when the national team was at the top of Asian football, winning the Asian Cup in 1984, 1988 and 1996. When the team did not win the cup, it came runner up in 1992, 2000 and 2007. In 1994, they qualified to the FIFA World Cup for the first time and performed excellently in the competition that took place in the United States, reaching the second round before losing to Sweden who ended fourth in the tournament. And who can forget the marvelous goal scored by midfielder Saeed Al Owairan against Belgium?

The Green Falcons have made it to the next three World Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2006. But since the middle of the last decade, Saudi football has been going into a steady and painful decline. The team has failed to qualify to the last World Cup as well as the next one. In the last Asian Cup that took place in neighboring Qatar in 2011, Saudi Arabia finished last in their group, losing all three games and scoring only one goal.

Writing for Abu Dhabi-based The National, Osman Samiuddin says “it is difficult to know in such an impenetrable culture exactly what has gone wrong.” But he points out to one factor, which is how frequently Saudi Arabia change managers. By his count, the Saudi team has gone through 32 managers between 1984 to 2006. For comparison, Germany has had only six managers over the same period.

The quick changes in the manager position is an indication of the erratic style of administration by Saudi football officials. This should not be surprising because most top Saudi football officials had no background in football. The top position at the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) since the 1971 has been filled by members of the royal family. First Prince Faisal bin Fahad, then his brother Prince Sultan and later Prince Nawaf, the son of Faisal.

The era of Faisal, who passed away in 1999, is often considered the golden era of Saudi football. Son of the late King Fahad, he was given wide powers and an open budget to develop sports in the country after he was appointed President of Youth Welfare in 1975. The presidency reportedly “spent like crazy” on massive infrastructure projects after he took over. Steffen Hertog, who wrote a book about Saudi Arabia’s political economy, estimates that budgeted expenditures under Faisal has exploded from SR 134 million in 1975 to almost SR 3 billion annually in the early 1980s.

That investment paid off. Saudi Arabia won the U-17 World Cup in Scotland in 1989. In the same year, Saudi Arabia hosted the FIFA World Youth Championship, with the newly opened King Fahad Stadium in the capital Riyadh serving as stage for the opening and the final. That stadium remained as the last major achievement in Saudi sports infrastructure for many years. Despite the rapid growth in population, the country did not build any big stadiums between 1989 and 2012. Late last year, construction has begun in the new King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.

However, the kind of spending witnessed in the 1980s was no longer affordable after the Gulf War. Saudi football made some great results in the 1990s based on the strong foundation laid out earlier, but the success was difficult to sustain as the growth of the young population strained the resources that have become scarce. With less resources and poor management at the upper echelons of the Youth Welfare Presidency and SAFF, Saudi footbal was destined to descend down a spiral of repeated failures in recent years.

Football is the most popular game in the country and fans took the failure very hard. Pressure from frustrated fans forced Prince Nawaf bin Faisal to resign last year as head of SAFF after Saudi Arabia was knocked out of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers on the hands of new comers to Asian football Australia. As James M. Dorsey noted on his Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, Nawaf’s resignation was notable for two reasons:

His resignation broke the mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team’s failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya brutally punishing players.

This is true, but Dorsey overlooks one more reason that forced the resignation and led to SAFF holding election for the first time to choose a president. Nawaf’s ouster and holding election were inevitable because FIFA insists that national football federations must be independent from governments. Few years ago FIFA suspended Kuwait from international football because its government “has continued to interfere” in the affairs of the Kuwaiti football federation.

SAFF held its first election to choose a president in December 2012. The winner was Ahmed Eid, a former goalkeeper for Jeddah-based al-Ahli club who is considered a reformer. He is also seen as a supporter of women sports, a controversial issue in the conservative kingdom. “He is probably the single most important male ally that Saudi female athletes have to get a women’s football team up and running,” Sabria S. Jawhar wrote in Arab News.

Looking at the situation of Saudi football today, it is clear that Eid faces an uphill battle. From the privatization of clubs controlled by royal family members to regaining the past glory of the national team, the list of challenges seems daunting and the expectations of fans are great. Footballers often say that to win games you need hard work as well as some luck. To succeed, Eid will need a whole lot of both.

Photos: Saudi Female Football Fans

Football is the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia. But women are not allowed to attend football matches in the conservative kingdom. That’s why many Saudi female fans wait for the chance to attend matches when the national team plays abroad. Photographers for Reuters news agency snapped a few shots of them cheering for the team which played Sunday against Iraq in the Gulf Cup tournament currently taking place in neighboring Bahrain. The Saudi fans who filled the stands of Khalifa Stadium in Isa Town have left dejected after Iraq defeated Saudi Arabia 2-0. The Saudi team will play Wednesday against Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s Football Republic

Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor of the Guardian, writes in his blog Al-Bab:

Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia held a presidential election last week. The presidency in question – that of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) – was scarcely of earth-shattering importance and yet, in several respects, the election marked a significant milestone.

SAFF, in effect, has become a soccer republic. For the first time since its foundation in 1956 by Prince Abdullah bin Faisal Al Saud, football’s governing body in the kingdom is no longer run by a member of the royal family. In last week’s election, members of the general assembly had a choice of two candidates (neither of them royals), who set out their platforms in a TV debate. And if that kind of process can work for SAFF, might it not be applied to other official bodies in the kingdom too?