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Saudi princess uses sports to promote gender equality and job opportunities

• By Laura Kelly •  March 3, 2018 

The Saudi Princess spearheading the national movement to engage the Kingdom’s next generation in sports and athletics spoke openly and candidly about the challenges her team faces in promoting a culture that is both foreign and antithetical to a society ingrained by religious propriety, gender segregation, and top-down governance. 


“Two narratives that we’re trying to shift in our country is gender segregation… and the reintegration of the family,” said Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, in a roundtable discussion at the Middle East Policy Institute in Washington D.C. on Thursday.

Mihrac Ural

 Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud (Laura Kelly)

A healthier nation

“So it is a social cohesion dialogue through physical activity and public spaces.” 


In 2016, the princess was appointed Vice-President, Development and Planning, General Sports Authority, with the task of normalizing amateur and community involvement in sports for both boys and girls, men and women.


Her title is in line with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s push for modernization and globalization, outlined in his Saudi “Vision 2030” plan. 


“The goal is to have a healthier nation,” Princess Reema said. “…We’re not in isolation anymore.”


Much of the princess’s life and education has taken place in the U.S. Her father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was the Saudi ambassador in Washington from 1983 to 2005. 


The princess is the first to admit she’s not an athlete but is experienced as an international businesswoman and an early rule-breaker to the country’s strict gender-segregation policies. In 2012, she helped integrate women into the previously, nearly all-male sales force at the popular Riyadh department store Harvey Nichols.


“It was very frustrating,” she said of the regulations and concessions they had to make to appease critics of men and women operating in a shared space. 


“It took from 2012 to 2018, about 5 years, but it normalized maybe 2014 with iterations of the community having to get used to this,” she said.


Progress in the Kingdom is alternating between a sprint and a snail’s pace as unprecedented changes are taking place within the context of the country’s strict Islamic-fundamentalist Wahhabism. 


A culture of sports in Saudi Arabia 

Her royal highness is in the U.S. sourcing expertise and leadership on creating a culture and job market for sports in her country, but her visit comes before the arrival of Crown Prince Salman, who is expected to travel to the U.S. March 19 to 22, Reuters reported. 


At the end of February, Salman, who is also the country’s defense minister, fired overnight at least five high-ranking military leaders. Saudi Arabia is currently in a proxy battle against Iran in the civil war in Yemen. The military shakeup was seen by some analysts as the prince fortifying loyalty toward a new plan of action in the war.


Economically, a royal decree last year gave law enforcement the authority to detain hundreds of Saudi businessmen and royal family members charged with corruption in a “purge” of the elite class, media reported at the time.


On Thursday, Princess Reema was candid that her leadership role was focused to a very narrow arena among the complex social, political and diplomatic challenges facing the Kingdom.


“I can’t control the war [in Yemen], I can’t. There’s nothing I can do today, tomorrow or after. But what I can do is promote and actively engage young people to be healthier global citizens,” she said.


“In context of the big ugly world, I’m working with shiny, bright and sparkly.” 


More female participation in both public life and the job market are a shock to a male-dominated society that still exercises control over a woman’s movement and life decisions. Only within the past few years have women been allowed simple freedoms like driving cars and attending sporting events.


With every advancement comes a logistical nightmare, the princess said, to ensure that women feel safe in public among men and that strict modesty between the sexes is respected so as not to alienate anyone. 


With the decree that women could attend sporting events, the princess said it took three months going through all the stadiums to see which could be transformed to accommodate women and families — putting in female bathrooms, putting partitions between male and female seating areas in addition to adding family friendly gathering spots with food and activities.


“Everything happens in the family home, or with the family together or just the ladies or just the boys — we need them to see each other because that’s the only way we’ll begin to realize that change isn’t just happening in their homes, it’s happening in other people’s homes,” she said.


The goal of creating a sports economy is to create new revenue streams and hundreds of thousands of jobs for Saudi nationals, yet challenges abound in first convincing the public its a viable career option and training the necessary amount of workers to fill the vacancies.


“We’re talking about moving away from the reliance on oil, we’re saying light manufacturing in sports can be done in the Kingdom,” she said.


“We want to bring that ‘work live play’ element and that really can only come out of the creative economy… parents don’t actually want their kids to do that, we want their kids to do that, so how do we talk to their parents and say, ‘I can help you, don’t panic, because this is an actual job.’”


Saudi women are still under the system of male guardianship, which controls a woman’s movement and life decisions, the Princess said Thursday that advancements in the country need to be taken at a pace that doesn’t exclude traditionalists or hardliners. 


“I’m not going to create programming that alienates people. I would rather slow down our programming and bring more people on the dialogue than speed it up,” she said.


“That speed and that rate of change is what nobody outside of Saudi wants to accept is our right path, is our right journey. My job is to include, not exclude.” 

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