Thousands of female football fans enter Saudi stadium for first time

Thousands of female football fans enter Saudi stadium for first time
Friday marks a landmark in Saudi Arabia's programme of modernising reforms, with women attending their first football match in the conservative kingdom, but they will still remain segregated from men.
3 min read
12 January, 2018
Thousands of Saudi women are expected to attend this week's matches [Getty]
Saudi Arabia's stadiums will open their doors for female football fans for the first time on Friday, as they host their first matches since the historic ruling to allow women into stadiums late last year.

The first match witnessed by women in the ultra-conservative kingdom will be held at Jeddah's King Abdullah Sports City, which will see the stadium's home team Al-Ahli play against fellow Saudi Pro League team Al-Batin from the Eastern Province. 

Head of the Saudi Federation for Sports Media, Raja Al-Sulami, detailed the preparations undertaken to ready the stadiums for female fans.

"In cooperation with the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, we have made all necessary arrangements to receive them in an atmosphere that respects their privacy," he told Saudi newspaper Arab News, maintaining that women fans will remain segregated from their male counterparts during the matches, with 14,000 women-only seats specially set aside for the occasion at the Jeddah stadium known as "the shining jewel". 

Friday sees the next match to welcome women spectators, when Jeddah-based Al Ittihad Football Club play against Al Hilal FC in Riyadh's 68,000-seater King Fahd International Stadium.

The Riyadh match also has a designated gender-segregated seating plan, to keep in line with the kingdom's strict rules surrounding male and female mixing. 

Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority (GSA) made public the seating arrangements, whereby women will occupy the northern area through gates two, three and four, and the southern area through gates 40, 41 and 42. The authorities expect 7,500 female fans to attend.

In true Saudi fashion, the GSA have announced a new category of "VVIP" tickets for all Saudi Pro League matches, selling at SR10,000 ($2,666) a pop.

Saudi sports clubs have recently been targeting women through social media and advertising campaigns in order to drive up female attendance at the upcoming matches.

Basketball club Al Ittihad tweeted their thanks to their female fans' support.

"Al Ittihady [male Ittihad fans] and Al Ittihadiyah [female Ittihad fans] make up the support for this team, and success can only be achieved with them together in unity," the club tweeted on Tuesday.  

The first football match attended by women takes place a day after the first female-only car showroom opened in Jeddah on Thursday, which is staffed completely by women. 

The showroom opened its doors to female citizens five months before the ruling to allow women to drive takes effect in June this year. Women have controversially been banned from driving in the kingdom for almost three decades, during which they have relied on male guardians and costly chauffeurs to ferry them from place to place.

A woman checks out the cars on offer at Saudi Arabia's first
female-only car showroom [Getty]
The loosening on restrictions on women in Saudi public life has been spearheaded by the kingdom's young crown prince and de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman.

The ambitious young prince is taking executive charge on transforming the country's economy, which has been in the doldrums for years, in a programme named Vision 2030. 

The programme is primarily focused on diversifying the country's economy away from its unsustainable reliance on oil exports. However to achieve this, he must grow non-oil industries and increase domestic spending, for which he much include female Saudi citizens more and more into public life.

A well-publicised boost to Saudi cultural life has encompassed female-only music concerts, lifting the long time ban on cinemas, as well as allowing women into stadiums to watch sports matches. The Saudi General Entertainment Authority, tasked with the recreation boost, has also announced plans to build an 'entertainment city' outside Riyadh, as well as several other theme parks.

Such a loosening however has not come without a backlash from the country's conservative factions. A Twitterstorm erupted this week when a Saudi dentist barred women patients from visiting without a male guardian

As some remain sceptical of MbS's true aims with Vision 2030, time will tell how the new measures will play out in Saudi society.