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Women’s Gyms Lay Bare Limits of Saudi Reforms

Saudi women will continue to suffer a decline in physical and mental health, beyond their lack of social, economic and political status.

Credit: James M. Dorsey


  • Lack of exposure to sun had led to vitamin D deficiency among 80% of Saudi women.
  • Restrictions on gym activities for women in Saudi reflects the immense power of the ultra-conservative religious establishment.
  • It must be understood that restrictions on women sports and physical activity have nothing to do with culture or religion.

Women’s sports is a true litmus test of Saudi Arabia’s ability to tackle its social, political and economic challenges head on.

Far from a side issue, it has to be seen as a key indicator of the degree to which Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” – and hence the Saudi government’s hopes to diversify the economy and streamline its bloated bureaucracy (while safeguarding the Al Saud’s grip on power) – are on track.

The powerful prince’s Vision 2030 identifies sports “as a mainstay of a healthy and balanced lifestyle and promises “to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.”

There is good reason for that. The Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, headed by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed, reported in 2014 that up to 74% of adults and 40% of children in the country are believed to be overweight or obese.

However, the reform plans also involve streamlining government expenditure, including public health spending. That is not exactly helpful in a country that boasts one of the world’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes.

Women matter

The licensing of women’s gyms is occurring even though Vision 2030 made no reference to facilities for women. That omission certainly is not a positive sign for the much-acclaimed overall reform-mindedness.

No real surprise either that the 2030 document also failed to even implicitly address demands by the IOC and human rights groups that women be allowed to compete freely in all athletic disciplines rather than only ones mentioned in the Qur’an.

Against that backdrop, the decision to license within weeks the kingdom’s first women-only gyms constitutes progress in a country in which women’s rights are severely curtailed.

However, it also lays bare the limitations of the deputy crown prince’s plan for social and economic reforms that would rationalize and diversify the kingdom’s economy.

Restrictions on what activities the gyms will be allowed to offer to women reflects the immense power of the ultra-conservative religious establishment. This segment of society is deeply critical of the long overdue reforms.

That these reforms are basically inevitable as a result of sharply reduced oil revenues and the need to enhance Saudi competitiveness in a 21st knowledge-driven global economy is not a dimension of thinking that enters their mind.

Slow progress

At least two years in the making, the licensing rules announced by Princess Reema bin Bandar, vice president for women’s affairs of the General Authority of Sports, the kingdom’s sports czar, focus on Prince Mohammed’s plans laid out in a document entitled Vision 2030.

“It is not my role to convince the society, but my role is limited to opening the doors for our girls to live a healthy lifestyle away from diseases that result from obesity and lack of movement,” Princess Reema said in announcing the licensing.

Princess Reema, the kingdom’s first ever women’s sports official, hopes to open gyms in every district and neighbourhood in the kingdom.

The move constitutes progress in a country that has yet to introduce sports in public girl’s schools and has no public facilities for women’s sports.

A class matter?

Commercially run gyms catering primarily to upper and upper middle class women as well as privately organized women’s sports teams have been operating in the kingdom in a legal nether land for several years.

Princess Reema indicated that gyms would be licensed to focus on activities such as swimming, running and bodybuilding but not for sports such as soccer volleyball, basketball and tennis.

The licensing rules are in line with a policy articulated in 2014 by Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee.

At the time, Mr. Al-Mishal, responding to pressure by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said women would only be allowed to compete in disciplines that were “accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia” and conform to a literal interpretation of the Qur’an.

Mr. Al-Mishal identified such sports as equestrian, fencing, shooting and archery.

A long road ahead

To make meaningful progress for women in the domain of sports, Saudi Arabia still has a very long road to travel. As the above-mentioned report by the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs stated:

Women in Saudi Arabia are being killed softly by their government. Not by public executions or brutal rapes and beatings, but by day-to-day restrictions imposed on them by their government…

It must be understood that restrictions on women sports and physical activity have nothing to do with culture or religion, but rather, are fuelled by the ruling elite as a means to control the population.

As long as the Saudi government continues to claim that such bans are a result of cultural and personal practices, women will continue to suffer a decline in physical and mental health, as well as their social, economic and political status.

It also said that the restrictions amounted to “an almost completely sedentary lifestyle forced on women by the government through a de facto ban on physical education and sports participation for women that stems from the Wahhabi imperative of ‘keeping women unseen.'”

And it isn’t just about the lack of movement. Saudi media have reported that lack of exposure to sun had led to vitamin D deficiency among 80% of Saudi women.

Forever dense-headed?

A Human Rights Watch report called on the Saudi government to demonstrate its sincerity by

  • making physical education for girls’ mandatory in all state schools
  • ensuring that women can train to teach physical education in schools
  • establishing sports federations for women and allows them to compete domestically and internationally
  • supporting women who want to compete in international sporting competitions on an equal footing with men
  • allowing women to attend sporting events involving men’s national teams.

“Saudi authorities need to address gender discrimination in sports, not just because it is required by international human rights law, but because it could have lasting benefits for the health and well-being of the next generation of Saudi girls,” Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Worden said at the time.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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