Last month, just two days before Maha Haddioui was due to fly to Saudi Arabia for the Kingdom’s first-ever women’s professional golf tournament, the Moroccan golfer got word that it had been postponed due to the coronavirus.
"I was very excited about the tournament in Saudi," Haddioui, 31, told The National. "Saudi having their first women's tournament was something really important that was going to change a lot of things and that really makes a statement about women's sport in general in the Arab world."
Haddioui knows a thing or two about making a statement.
In 2012, she became the first Moroccan and first Arab to earn playing privileges on the Ladies European Tour. In 2016, the Agadir resident qualified for the Rio Games as golf made its return to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years.
As a trailblazer for the region, Haddioui was particularly thrilled to see Saudi Arabia invest in women’s golf in such a big way. The $1 million (Dh3.67m) prize pot on offer is one of the most lucrative on tour, and it follows on from Morocco’s €450,000 Lalla Meryem Cup that was established in 1993.
“The prize money in golf unfortunately is very unfair when it comes to the difference in prize money between men and women. We’re not like tennis, where it’s equal prize money, it’s very different in golf,” Haddioui said.
“It’s almost like five times or 10 times more for the men. So having Saudi start a new tournament for women with such big prize money, to me, makes a statement and it shows that they’re willing to grow the game and that the region is committed to women’s golf. Morocco is doing the same. They’ve been really committed to the women’s tournament, they offer one of the biggest prize pots on the Ladies European Tour."
While the men’s European Tour event in Saudi offers €3.5m, which is more than triple the sum awarded to the women, Haddioui is right: the Kingdom’s first foray into the women’s game is a good start.
It took Dubai Duty Free four years before they decided, in 2005, to offer the men and women equal prize money at their tennis tournaments in the Emirates. Dubai was one of the first non-Grand Slam events to do so, and many have since followed suit – another example of how the Arab region has positively contributed to women sport.
Staging international events can often pave the way for local talents to emerge. Morocco’s Younes El Aynaoui once told me that watching ATP players compete in his hometown when he was a kid immediately captured his imagination and made him want to pursue a professional tennis career. He eventually became the highest ranked Arab tennis player in history, peaking at No 14 in the world in 2003.
Haddioui had a similar experience when she was a young aspiring golfer. She would ask her father to drive her to Rabat to watch the pros at the Hassan II Trophy and Lalla Meryem Cup, not knowing that one day she would compete among them.
When you’re a pioneer and have no local heroes to follow, you find other ways to seek inspiration, and for Haddioui, it was those annual road trips to the capital.
“I think that was really the trigger for me,” she said. “Watching them play golf at a really high level and I was following the female players on the course, thinking this is exactly what I want to do.
“And that’s how it happened for me. So that’s also why having events and bringing professional athletes, of any sport, that’s what motivates the younger generation. If you don’t see something it’s hard to put your head to it, so to me, I didn’t think I want to be the first Moroccan to be on tour, it was just like, ‘Oh I want to be like her’.”
Haddioui pays tribute to her parents for accepting the idea of her playing golf for a living. When she started out age 12, there weren’t other girls to compete against, so she took on the boys on the courses of Morocco.
“I’m so grateful that my parents were open to the idea and were really supportive. I was 13, 14 years old and travelling – my first tournament was in Dubai, the second was in Syria, to go and play the Arab Championships and my parents were really excited because they love sport but I know a lot of parents who wouldn’t have accepted their daughter would go on her own.”
Haddioui senses a mentality shift now compared to when she was starting out nearly two decades ago, and can see many more Moroccans, both boys and girls, taking up golf seriously.
“Today it’s something parents don’t even think twice about. It’s normal, you’re going to represent your country, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re a boy or a girl. I think that’s the biggest difference that is happening,” she said.
Haddioui recalls her early years playing golf where she would travel solo to the Arab Championships because there were not enough girls to form a team. Now she sees a significant increase in numbers to the extent that there are qualifiers for the women looking to make it onto the national squad.
Her presence, along with the investment being made by the Hassan II Golf Trophy Association (ATH), and the Moroccan Golf Federation, have clearly had a strong impact.
Competing at the Olympics in 2016 provided an even bigger platform for Haddioui to reach a wider audience in Morocco and the Mena region.
“That’s the beauty of the Olympics,” she said. “Growing up, there were a lot of sports I never followed except during the Olympics, because there are obviously medals and a lot involved.
"I think it’s amazing that golf is at the Olympics and people are actually following golf, people who didn’t even know anything about golf back home are watching golf because there is a Moroccan girl playing.
“I think that’s amazing, it’s opening the sport to a lot of people that otherwise wouldn’t have even watched it or cared about it. I got a lot of messages from people who actually watched me when I was playing and they said, ‘Oh, we never thought could be so interesting to watch, can you recommend where we could try?’ And I got so many positive messages like that from people who are not familiar with the sport, so I think it’s great to grow the game.”
Haddioui provides great insight into the necessary elements that can forge a pathway to a successful professional sporting career for women in the Arab world. Our federations should make a habit of utilising such trailblazers, learning from their experiences, and promoting them as role models in order to help create more champions.