Saudi Arabia sports stadiums open to women from next year

Top: Saudi women at a Riyadh film festival. The kingdom is expected to lift a public ban on cinemas. Above: Sophia the robot has been granted Saudi citizenship.
Saudi women at a Riyadh film festival. The kingdom is expected to lift a public ban on cinemas. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Top: Saudi women at a Riyadh film festival. The kingdom is expected to lift a public ban on cinemas. Above: Sophia the robot has been granted Saudi citizenship.
Above: Sophia the robot has been granted Saudi citizenship.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia will allow women into sports stadiums for the first time from next year, authorities said, in a landmark move opening up three previously male-only venues to families.

The ultra-conservative kingdom, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, has long barred them from sports arenas by strict rules on segregation of the sexes in public.

The announcement on Sunday is in line with powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious reforms shaking up the kingdom, including the historic decision to allow women to drive from next June.

"Starting the preparation of three stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam to be ready to accommodate families from early 2018," the General Sports Authority said on Twitter.

Sunday's announcement implies that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed for the first time to attend sporting events inside stadiums alongside men. Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member - normally the father, husband or brother - must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

But the kingdom appears to be relaxing some norms as part of its sweeping "Vision 2030" plan for economic and social reforms as it prepares for a post-oil era.

Last month, a royal decree said women would be allowed to drive. The kingdom is also expected to lift a public ban on cinemas and has encouraged mixed-gender celebrations - something unseen before.

"First women driving, now stadiums. What's next? Night clubs?" said one Saudi Twitter user, echoing a deluge of social media comments expressing surprise over the accelerating pace of reforms.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia officially granted citizenship to a humanoid robot during a programme at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last week.

"Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Sophia the robot said. "It is historic to be the first robot in the world granted citizenship."

The announcement could be controversial among conservative Saudis, many of whom believe that representation of the human form, even in art or on a mannequin, is sacrilegious.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi Arabia sports stadiums open to women from next year'. Print Edition | Subscribe