Saudi Arabia's female footballers welcome new era for women's sport

Women actively encouraged to engage in sports and represent the country abroad

Al- Hamdan in training
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Leena Almaeena founded Saudi Arabia’s first private female basketball club in 2003, but it is only in recent years that women's participation in sport has risen rapidly in the kingdom.

The former member of the Shoura Council consultative assembly is on a mission to empower Saudi women through sports as attitudes shift and dedicated female facilities for football, volleyball, basketball, judo, karate, taekwondo, golf, and other sports open up across the country.

The launch of the country’s first female football league last month was a turning point in Saudi sport, inspiring more young women to consider careers in the field.

Prior to Saudi Vision 2030, which established a new blueprint for the economic development of the country when it was introduced in 2016, the government did not allow licensed female gyms or sports clubs. “There were no women attending stadiums or games, and only a few elite private schools offered sports for girls,” Ms Almaeena said.

“But after the announcement of the 2030 Vision, attitudes towards women’s athletics changed; the Saudi government made a new economic development plan to improve infrastructure, encourage community sports and support elite competitors,” she said.

Almaeena empowring her young team members

In the past decade, Norah Almarri became the first taekwondo athlete to represent Saudi Arabia, in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Kariman Abuljadayel, a sprinter, became the first Saudi woman to compete in the 100-metre race in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas won a bronze equestrian medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics.

Saudi sportswomen's accomplishments are also encouraging women to expand their participation in other areas of national life, said Ms Almaeena, who featured on a list of the 200 Most Powerful Women in the Middle East by Forbes magazine in 2014.

Women are now taking up positions in sports organisations and have been appointed leaders and board members in the Saudi Ministry of Sports.

In the past five years, Saudi women’s participation in sport has increased 149 per cent, Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said recently during an online symposium organised by the London Business School Alumni Association in Riyadh.

“In line with new progressive government policies, a lot of attention and investment has geared towards the inclusion of women in sports on both elite and amateur levels,” he said.

Al- Yamani celebrates at the age of 13

The launch of the Women’s Football League in November 2020 brought together 600 players from 24 teams in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

Munira Al Hamdan is one of a growing number of female Saudi footballers trying to make a career in the sport. Ms Al Hamdan, 24, who has been playing the sport for a decade, founded the Al Mamlaka football club two years ago in her home city of Khobar, and has also played with the Bahraini team, Super Soccer.

"Coming from a family football background made it easy for me to play football. Despite the domination of football by men here in Saudi Arabia, I paved my way to play my favourite sport with all the support of my family," Ms Al Hamdan said.

While Ms Al Hamdan is pleased that Saudi society has become more accepting of women’s football in recent years, there is still work to be done, she said. “Now that we have a football league for women we hope to also see other official tournaments for basketball, volleyball, swimming, tennis and other sports.”

Her current ambition is to play for the Saudi national team in international tournaments and help ensure that female football teams from the kingdom are represented abroad.

Nouf Al Yamani, 27, has also been playing since an early age and won a local football championship with her team when she was 14, persevering despite the restrictions on female players.

“I remember when we were just a small group of girls with dreams of kicking a ball around, but we’ve worked hard and learnt a lot,” Ms Al Yamani said.

At the time, playing football in Saudi’s "traditionalist society was very difficult, but we have resisted all the threats to overcome the challenge", she said.

“Over the past few years, we’ve really moved on to a different level, thanks to the great work by those responsible for women’s football in Saudi Arabia.”

“The kingdom has transformed massively in every way when it comes to female sports in general,” she said.

Hearing about the launch of the Women’s Saudi Football League gave her confidence that sport in Saudi Arabia had entered a new era for female athletes.

“The launch of the league will bolster women's participation in sports at the community level and generate increased recognition for women's sporting achievements," she said.