September’s – ‘The Power Issue’ – Download Now
As the first all-female footballers representing Saudi Arabia, the Greens Team is at the forefront of the empowering change for women in sport that is happening in the Kingdom
It was only two years ago that women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to attend sporting events in public stadiums. Since this history-making moment in 2018, the attitude towards women in sport in the Kingdom has transformed. At the forefront of the pivotal shift in the country is the Saudi Greens Team, which became the first Saudi women’s team ever to join an international event. In 2019, the Greens competed in the Global Goals World Cup (GGWCup) – a tournament that was launched to champion the role of sport in achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SGD) No. 5.
The team – which has been spearheaded by His Highness Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, the president of the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA) – went on to claim second place in the New York City-based tournament, an achievement which was highly praised by many. “The Greens’ participation in the Global Goals World Cup demonstrates the Kingdom’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and shows how sports and fitness can play a role in confronting our shared environmental challenges,” Prince Khaled said at the time of the team’s win. “Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has made the environment and the overall health of our citizens a top priority.”
In further support of the Greens, Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the first female Saudi Ambassador to the United States, also expressed how “proud” she was of the team and showcased her support by participating in a panel discussion organised by the GGWCup. “The pride and joy that I feel is so hard to describe; only those who were there with us can really understand,” Greens player, Ms Maram Adel Albutairi, tells Emirates Woman of being in the first all-female team to represent the Kingdom. “We are trailblazing our way, and we are writing history.” Albutairi’s love for football began at a very young age, taking after her mother who is also a “die-hard” football fan. It was after winning a tournament in Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia that she realised she would never want to stop playing.
Albutairi’s fellow teammate Ms Rawh Abdullah Alarfaj shares a similar sentiment about participating in the tournament. A particular milestone for her was being able to work with a global brand like Nike, who sponsored the Greens’ appearance at the GGWCup. Reflecting on her 12 years playing football, Alarfaj reveals she went through “a lot of struggles” to get support for the team she previously managed. “One of the major struggles was getting proper gear for the team,” she says. “Watching official female teams and female World Cup games sponsored by big names throughout those years kept me always dreaming of one day being sponsored by a big global brand. The day Nike sponsored the Greens Team made us feel professional and we felt even more validated.”
The all-female team representing Saudi Arabia on an international level was a history-making moment for the kingdom and in recent years many other positive changes have happened for women in sport and beyond. “It’s all a dream come true, and I actually can say I lived the dream,” Alarfaj says. “For myself and a lot of women like me across Saudi practising all different kind of sports, we’ve been waiting for the day when these changes would happen. Back in the day, we were individuals working towards making female sports live, now we are a whole country working on it altogether.” For the Greens’ player, she attributes it to the “major role” the Saudi Sports for All Federation has played by providing “high-quality opportunities for both girls and women in sport”. With female’s gyms in Saudi Arabia being licensed nowadays, it gives the opportunity for women to practice sports across the board.
“If a girl or woman wants to pursue sports as a career, she can now become an athlete or a coach and seek certification; this wasn’t the case before,” Alarfaj notes. As for the teammates’ hopes for the future, they aspire to continue to fly the flag for female footballers from the Kingdom. “I hope that in the future women footballers in Saudi’s national team will compete in the Women’s World Cup one day,” Albutairi says. “And I would say to all the women in sports: try and try and try once more; you should never give up!”
Shaima Saleh Al-Husseini, Managing Director for the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA)
How did you become Managing Director for the Saudi Sports for All Federation?
I was in the private sector initially. I always felt a need to put my energy to work for Saudi society and give back to my country. I’ve worked across several public sector positions, all in the wellness and sports space, and with the guidance of Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar, I was given the opportunity to advocate for Saudi’s healthy and active community as the Managing Director of Sports for All. During Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed’s Presidency, the Federation has gone from strength to strength, and together with our leadership team we’re privileged to serve Saudi by invigorating health and wellness metrics in the country. We are influencing positive behaviours for the long-term, getting people active consistently, and spreading health and fitness as a movement that everyone can and should adopt.”
How have things changed for women in sport in Saudi Arabia?
It is hard to say what has changed, as the question is more what hasn’t changed? Everything has improved by leaps and bounds for women in sport in Saudi. There are now dedicated programs to foster women in sport, and in our case, at the community level, to turn athletics and physical activity into a daily habit for girls from a very young age. The Saudi Sports for All Federation, with the support of the Ministry of Sports, works very closely with the Quality of Life programme, and we have very clear mandates on increasing mass participation, and specifically that of women and girls.
There’s now huge support for elite women athletes as well; as I am sure you know there was not before.”
How is the Saudi Sports for All Federation supporting change for women in sport in the Kingdom?
At Sports for All, we’re working across multiple prongs for societal betterment. Girls and women do of course figure prominently in these plans, as the SFA develops programme for all people – both residents and nationals- in the country. We want to be the most inclusive across genders, all ages and all abilities. We stage sporting events and events that allow people to try new activities on the ground. Our Family Activity Days welcomed more than 314,000 people last year, allowing event-goers to try more than 40 activities on-site. This teaches a love for sports and physical activity from a very young age, and helps to build physical literacy. Another example is our cycling race series for women across three cities that concluded in January of this year. The series had more than 1,000 competitors, and it was a huge moment for women in sports in the Kingdom; they could compete and be rewarded for doing so. Now, SFA is also a change-agent, as together with our partners, both private and public sector entities, we are working on encouraging a mindset of physical fitness and health and wellness. Our whole messaging schema is built around being a change agent: try a new activity, get your kids in a new activity, get up and walk 5,000 steps per day, try that YouTube workout video; join the wave of activity sweeping Saudi, get moving! In addition to events, we have a number of programmes that work to foster a consistent and early exposure to athletics including the SFA’s Girls’ National Sports Days (GNSD). It took place over a six-week period and included more than 24,000 students from 499 schools. There’s a lot more I could talk about in terms of fostering women in sport.
What do you hope for the future of women in football – and sport in general – in Saudi Arabia?
I hope to see more Saudi women become the faces of sport in Saudi. Already we have a few very well-known professional athletes and some fitness professionals that are very well-known at the community level as well. What I hope is that we get there with every sport; that girls beyond count take up and excel in sports. Have you seen our women hockey players? Imagine the surprise at having women’s ice hockey teams in Saudi; it’s real and it’s getting bigger all of the time. Our girls that play on different basketball teams are amazing as well. If you follow Saudi sports social media channels, you’ll see all of these people interact and more, posting images of their contribution to athletics in the country.”
There have been major positive changes that have been made for women in Saudi Arabia. What are your thoughts on this?
Women in Saudi all thank His Majesty King Salman and His Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their belief in Saudi women and our potential and capabilities. We are very lucky to be living during this period in Saudi history; we are encouraged to pursue every ambition and we have the support mechanisms now in place to do so. When you spoke to the Saudi Greens, they said they were living their dreams; we all are.
This is ‘The Power Issue’ – what does power mean to you?
Power means being able to empower others, and at the SFA I’m proud to say that we are empowering people across the country by giving high-quality opportunities and access to sports and health and wellness knowledge to all.
September’s – ‘The Power Issue’ – Download Now
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