In 2018, a royal decree was issued to increase the participation of women in sport. In addition, the number of sports federations increased from 32 to 64, to provide more opportunities for men and women to take part and excel in the sports they enjoy.
A number of sports appeal to Saudi women these days, but the journey toward mass participation probably began 15 or 20 years ago with those who wanted to play soccer and basketball. In those days however, the sporting opportunities open to women were private clubs or personal groups.
Now the Kingdom is evolving in a number of ways, and the empowerment of women in all fields, including sports, is one of the priorities of Vision 2030. This was reflected in the fact that the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee last month sent its biggest team yet to the sixth GCC Women’s Games, which took place in Kuwait from Oct. 20-30. The 62 Saudi athletes competed in eight sports: Athletics, athletics for people with special needs, bowling, basketball, indoor soccer, table tennis, taekwondo and fencing.
Although women have had greater access to sports since early 2018, many federations are still struggling to provide appropriate facilities because of the lack of Saudi women with the skills needed to train people and manage clubs. Still, a few federations have overcome the problems and given women the chance to compete at local and international events under the Saudi national flag in sports such as bowling, fencing, taekwondo, athletics and a few others.
Meanwhile players of team sports such as football and basketball who previously played in private clubs can, for first time, now play officially. It remains to be seen whether these teams will go on to represent the Kingdom in competitions and benefit from training camps and development programs, or we will see new teams formed and take over.
Saudi Arabia was one of six teams that competed at the GCC Women’s Games last month, alongside the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. With a haul of 11 medals — two gold, three silver and six bronze — the Kingdom’s team ranked fifth in the overall medals table. Bahrain finished top with 77 medals, followed by the UAE (54), Kuwait (50) and Qatar (32). Oman finished sixth.
The Saudi medal successes came in fencing (2 gold, 1 silver), taekwondo (2 silver, 1 bronze), athletics (1 silver, 1 bronze), athletics for people with special needs (2 bronze) and indoor soccer (1 bronze).
For me, not only to see this happen but be a part of it as the manager of the Saudi bowling team was another dream come true. It made me really proud and happy to be part of such a large team of Saudi women, which in addition to the athletes included administrators, coaches, managers and medical support staff. It was a true honor to meet each and every one of them.
The support provided during the event by Princess Nouf bint Khalid, the head of the Saudi delegation, and team manager Alanoud Alghurairi made a great impact on the athletes and officials. Their presence and words of encouragement were greatly appreciated, not to mention the celebration they arranged for the victorious Saudi athletes. This was truly overwhelming for the medalists and, indeed, for all present. Even athletes from other nations said it made a big impression on them and showed that the Saudi team was strong and united. Above all, it was simply proof of how much our sporting officials care.
Another highlight of the Games was the encouragement and support shown by the members of the Saudi team for their compatriots competing in other sports. For example, the basketball and fencing teams came to cheer on our bowling team, and vice versa. It was an opportunity for Saudi sportswomen to support each other, teach each other the beauty of national pride through sport, and increase awareness by introducing each other to new sports.
Because the public participation of Saudi women in mainstream sport is still new, the reaction to it in society is also new and varies a lot, especially among parents. Some, for example, found it difficult to allow their daughters to travel to the event in Kuwait, even though they participate in local events. Others came along to cheer and support their daughters, and perhaps also feel more comfortable about their participation in the event by being with them. Some had the faith and confidence to let their children experience the world for themselves, and chose to support them from Saudi Arabia.
More generally, the Games reminded us that our peers in other GCC countries had been participating in sports and training for much longer than we have. For our levels of performance to improve so that we can better compete will require a lot of hard work, but taking part in international tournaments and leagues will help our women enhance and develop their skills.
Whether in bowling or other sports, our sportswomen are keen to test themselves against regional peers in regular competitions, in the hope that one day, women’s sports leagues in the region will be as strong as any international leagues.
The GCC Women’s Games take place every two years, so the seventh edition is not until 2021. The next major event at which Saudi women will have a chance to compete against regional rivals will be the fifth Arab Women Sports Tournament, which begins in Sharjah, UAE, on Feb. 2, 2020. This event is also held every two years.
It might be difficult to set up an annual tournament for women in GCC or Arab countries that includes multiple sports. However, there is a pressing need in the region for annual women’s tournaments in each sport, individually. This is how we will raise the bar and encourage participation, not to mention give more women a chance to take part and test their skills by competing with experienced veterans.
Last but not least, it is worth pointing out that although we in the Saudi Bowling Federation have taken our women’s team to compete in other countries several times, participating in the GCC Women’s Games was a totally different experience. Knowing that they were competing alongside fellow Saudis gave the women even greater motivation to play better, and made them feel supported and strong.
Smaller local tournaments are important to the development of women’s sport in Saudi Arabia, but some experiences can only be lived through participating in major sporting events.