GRAEME GALLAGHER | SPORTS EDITOR
In 2018, Saudi Arabia will start to allow women into major sports stadiums as an attempt to modernize the country.
The statement was made last month by the General Sport Authority, the country’s governing body for sports. King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, King Abdullah Sport City in Jeddah, and Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd Stadium in Dammam are the three previous male-only stadiums that will begin operations to “accommodate families.” The specific seating arrangements are yet to be made.
St. Norbert Professor Robert Kramer who specializes in Middle Eastern Studies said, “They are going to want to make it more accessible for women, but not necessarily on the own just yet.”
These stadiums are the three biggest in the country and are home to six teams in the Saudi Professional League (soccer) and two of these stadiums have the highest capacity in the country.
This change is the latest step in giving women more freedom in Saudi Arabia. This movement started with the monumental decree in September, which gave women the opportunity to drive.
This seemingly small change in stadiums is actually altering the way of life in the conservative country. Saudi Arabia follows some of the strictest interpretations of Sunni Islam and adhere to the guardianship system for women.
“Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative country and can be described as the most conservative in the Muslim world,” said Kramer.
“They have had this system in place since the country was created in the early twentieth-century,” said Kramer, “and the guardianship system is a system, whereby, women are not allowed to go out in groups or go out by themselves in public.”
The recent changes can be attributed to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s new reforms in the country. His plan calls for economic rethinking through youth and women empowerment, and social organization. This change in the world of sports is another slow moving change in the system.
“This is something that has to develop gradually, particularly in a country that has been very, very conservative for almost 90 years of its existence,” said Kramer, “They are moving pretty quickly, but it is going to take awhile.”
Sports in any culture are important aspects to society and the inclusion of women in Saudi Arabian stadiums could open up opportunities for the country on many different levels, especially in an economic sense.
The current economic situation of Saudi Arabia is completely dependent on the oil industry. Saudi Arabia has always been the leading producer of oil, but this industry is starting to decline. Worldwide oil prices are plummeting, other countries are increasing competition, and renewable sources of energy are being discovered and relied upon. All these factors are leading Saudi Arabia to look for other sources of wealth.
“The Crown Prince is moving their economy away from its dependence on petroleum to other things,” said Kramer, “and he is trying to modernize the economy even as he tries to modernize the society.”
By modernizing the society, Saudi Arabia can find a new source of wealth in the women. With the current system and rules on women, the country has not been utilizing the economic potential of more than half their population.
“They are holding themselves back by not having women in the workforce,” said Kramer.
In addition to this, the country can find another large source of wealth in their tourism economy. There are many destinations and places in Saudi Arabia that attract tourists, but the current state of the society, especially in terms of women, push people away from visiting.
“They are not going to attract tourists from the Western industrialized countries, unless they liberalize their views on women,” said Kramer, “people will not go to a country where they feel women are being cruelly misused.”
The modernization of this society will attract more and more foreign visitors, and would allow the country to tap into the endless tourist possibilities that they have.
Lastly, by allowing women into sports stadiums, this taps into more entertainment revenue and also builds a sense of nationalism. In the face of ISIS and Islamic Extremism, the emphasis on sports and culture can build a more positive image of the country. To encourage women to be consumers of sports, it allows the country as a whole to have more profile in Saudi nationalism. Also, with the increase of emphasis on sports, the country wants to show this new nationalism on the world stage, such as in the Olympics.
“They’re wanting to feature their athletes on the world stage because they want to show that they are a modern country and they want to show that they believe in human rights,” said Kramer, “and a part of showing that is to develop women’s athletic potential.”
By allowing women into stadiums, it is a positive step in this nationalistic perspective, as it encourages women to participate in sports themselves and shows off their national pride.
This progressive change in sports is a prime example of how sports can alter the news around us. Sports is an impactful cultural outlet and provides a lot more than just entertainment. It affects a country’s economy, culture, and identity. By simply allowing women to enter stadiums in Saudi Arabia, the country is using sports as a way to change their society. Sports and their impact on the world affects the news in more ways than we ever recognize.