Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud on making sports more inclusive for the women of Saudi Arabia
In January, women soccer fans in Saudi Arabia shuffled into King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah to watch Saudi Pro League teams Al Ahli and Al Batin, battle it out on the field. That game marked the first time a major sporting event was open to women in the Kingdom.
Ahead of International Women's Day, Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the executive vice president of the Saudi Sports Authority, sat down with espnW at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., to discuss her experience at the match, inclusivity in sports and prepping Saudi women for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
espnW: In January, female soccer fans in Saudi Arabia attended their first match. What was that experience like?
bint Bandar Al-Saud: It was sensational. The reason that it was fabulous wasn't that women attended, but it was that women attended with their families. Women went with their friends. The social dynamic of watching sports changed overnight.
The women were so excited, they were cheering themselves on as they walked in. It was one of those, "I can't believe I'm here," moments. Also, there was open seating. As in, there was no separation between the family section and where the ladies were sitting. They were able to sit at their leisure, at their comfort.
And while there are only three stadiums that [permit women attending to date], they are the largest stadiums [in Saudi Arabia]. The only reason it's only three stadiums, [which are in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam], is that we are reassessing the infrastructure of all of the others, and quite simply, the ladies' facilities need to be upgraded to welcome us.
espnW: As you noted, that was the first time a major sporting event was open to women in the Kingdom. Can you discuss your involvement in this process?
bint Bandar Al-Saud: I handle planning and development at the Sports Authority, as well as diversity and inclusion partnerships. I also supervise the sports economy. And I wanted to show the economic impact of the inclusion of women in sports. I floated the idea to the man who hired me. He went on to work with the Crown Prince, [Mohammad bin Salman], and the rules and regulations came out stating that women can use all and any government-owned facilities. And a stadium is a government-owned facility. So, all of those facilities are open and available for women to use.
espnW: There is also a push for women's empowerment initiatives in Saudi Arabia. Please explain.
bint Bandar Al-Saud: We are working with all of the [Saudi Arabian Sports] Federations to include women, not just as athletes, but also on the board level, advisory level and in the administration. The reason that's critical is that a woman's eye to another woman will be a lot more detailed than a man's eye. Specifically, because in our community we're not yet used to gender integration, and it's going to come, but we need to look out for ourselves. Appointing women to look out for other women is critical. And it expands job opportunities.
We are looking to have women find jobs in the sports economy -- this being in training, development, engineering, education, health and medical care. We're looking at the ushers. We're looking at the security women, and it keeps going.
I'm grateful to the leadership in my organization that's allowing us to move forward aggressively to deliver all of this change. But to create an impact on the national level, we have to move beyond sports. We have to [integrate] the creative economy -- arts, culture, entertainment and sports.
espnW: How will women's involvement in sports in Saudi Arabia help develop their leadership skills?
bint Bandar Al-Saud: I see how sports is used for male bonding. I see how sports are used to let off steam and I want our women to have those same opportunities. But, we have to start that dialogue from a young age. I'm proud to say, that in collaboration with the Ministry of Education we now have physical education in girls' schools, which we didn't have before. And that's a huge step.
It's important to create that dynamic in your life as a young woman. That dialogue of team and collaboration is important, and to me, sports in schools is as important as math. The failure and the successes of sports -- those are all things young women need to learn at an early age.
espnW: Can you discuss the intersection of sports and politics within the Kingdom?
bint Bandar Al-Saud: Before my appointment at the Sports Authority, I worried that people wouldn't accept the public participation of women in sports. Of course, some environments are more than happy to have a family environment -- where husbands, wives and families are all going out [to sporting events] together. They are all socializing in the same space at the same time. Other communities are not yet ready to have that cohesion.
We said to [certain leaders]: "I understand you prefer to have gender segregation in your community. But could you please at least host the [men's and women's] events on the same day so that the families can leave home together? The women can go to one side. The men can go to the other -- but, at least they'll have that shared experience, and if it works for you to blend your programming later, that's fabulous, do it on your own time."
Because the worst thing for you to do is force a community to do something it doesn't believe is socially acceptable. And I always tell people, "Our issue of segregation is not racial. It's gender segregation, and it will take time to dissolve, just like any other segregation movement."
espnW: Are Saudi women athletes gearing up for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
bint Bandar Al-Saud: We had two young ladies go on wildcards at the 2012 London Olympics, [Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and 800-meter runner Sarah Attar]. Having a wildcard, [which means they could compete without meeting formal qualification standards], is not what I want. In 2016, four young ladies, [Attar again, runner Cariman Abu al-Jadail, Judoka Wujud Fahmi and fencer Lubna Al-Omair], all went to the Rio Olympics on wildcards. I don't want another wildcard. If we don't make it to 2020, I would like them to go through the qualifiers on merit and skill, then make it 2024. I would be more than happy with that. My goal is to have as many young women feel that that dream is theirs. Wanting to compete, wanting to participate and keep working on themselves to get where they need to go. I need them to feel the hunger to get to where they need to go.