As Saudi Arabia marks its 91st National Day, 'The National' sits down with pioneering Saudis to talk about the changing face of the kingdom.
When most sports for young girls in Saudi Arabia were limited to private schools, sports academy Jeddah United (JU) made it possible for them to dream, play basketball and pursue an active lifestyle — all of which felt impossible for some until recently.
Lina Al Maeena, a Saudi pioneer in sports, took the first initiative with JU 18 years ago when she organised a women's basketball team in Jeddah.
Ms Al Maeena, co-founder of the academy in the western Saudi province, formed her sports company under a commercial license in 2006. The club trained young boys and girls in sports to promote social reforms, spark positivity and foster the culture of sport in the kingdom.
She went on to become a pioneer in providing a platform for girls from all backgrounds to join sports teams and pursue their love for sport.
Forbes listed her as one of the most powerful women in the Arab world in 2014.
Inspired by her father, a renowned Saudi media figure, she grew up with a strong passion and dedication to the values of sportsmanship.
“I remember we had the opportunity to meet different international sports legends like Mohammed Ali, the world boxing champion and Imran Khan, former cricket world champion, now the prime minister [of Pakistan], so sport had been a part of our lives since our childhood and it seemed absolutely natural for me to follow that path,” she said.
Up until a few years ago, sports venues, women's gyms, parks and entertainment venues were limited in number — or did not exist.
But that changed in 2016 when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Vision 2030, a plan that aimed to revolutionise the country, especially for its women and young people.
“Entertainment was very limited in Saudi Arabia. It was at a time where it was impossible to get licensing for women's clubs or women's academies,” said Ms Al Maeena.
“I remember that day [in 2016] very well. I was standing on our football field when I read the lines, 'The objective is to increase the participation in sports from 13 per cent to 40 per cent'. I kept reading it over and over again because it was, well, very genderless. It was talking about participation for girls and boys. It was a very special moment for me.”
Opportunities for Saudi women in sport have since skyrocketed.
Today, the country has several sport academies and the integration of football stadiums allows men and women to enjoy sport in the kingdom.
Physical education classes for girls in public schools have been introduced and the kingdom has officially launched basketball and football teams for Saudi women. JU has trained some of the best basketball players in the country, and many are now coaching and training the next generation.
Ms Al Maeena was one of the first women to be appointed to the Shoura Council in the kingdom in 2016, further empowering her be the voice of women in Saudi Arabia.
She was an advocate for women's rights and stood up for their participation in the sport sector. Vision 2030 provided her and women in sports with new hope and the promise of a better future.
Vision 2030 states that new development programmes will be introduced to enable the kingdom's younger population to have a more promising future and help boost physical fitness both in and out of school for both genders.
Ms Al Maeena was the first Saudi woman to represent a Saudi team at the Arab Club tournament in Sharjah. In 2018, she won a sportsmanship award along with global and local recognition for her efforts to support women.
“We actually were very honoured that we won the sportsmanship award that year in 2018,” she said.
She believes advancement in sport will enable women to excel in different fields and provide several economic advantages.
JU was awarded the Class A certification from the General Sports Authority in 2019, which Ms Al Maeena described as a “complete game changer”. The club is now expanding to other parts of the country, adding branches in Makkah and Madinah to those already operating in Jeddah and Riyadh.
This year, Riyadh Bank signed an exclusive partnership agreement with Riyadh United to promote women's participation in fitness and sports academies and develop athletes to represent the kingdom internationally.
Ms Al Maeena reflects on the past but says the present makes up for lost time. She said she feels responsible for giving back to the community and her country, which is rapidly creating “endless opportunities and new roles for women".
Ms Al Maeena said: “I am so proud of all the changes under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed that are enabling women to lead and take charge of their lives.
“My dream was to be on the national team. I never lived that dream, but I live it through the girls in our academy.”
Her hope is that one day, JU will reach standards of recognition usually reserved for international football clubs.
JU has two team sport academies for football and basketball, for women, men and children. It has trained more than 10,000 Saudis and hosted more than 50 major events and 100 tournaments in the past 15 years.