Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it would allow women who qualify to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games may give the impression that the conservative kingdom, which has a brazenly medieval attitude towards its female citizens, has finally seen the light. No such thing. The country was under pressure from the International Olympics Committee, which itself was feeling the heat from international human rights organisations for not coming down hard enough on the country for its gender discrimination. The Olympic Charter describes discrimination against women in sport as “incompatible” with its mission. The IOC did nothing about the wealthy kingdom’s discriminatory ways all these years even though it barred Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from the 2000 games for not sending a women’s team. This year, there were strong calls for similar treatment to Saudi Arabia. Had the country not complied, at the very least, it would have stood out as the only significant outlier among 205 participating nations: the two other countries that have never sent women to the Olympics, Qatar and Brunei, have already nominated their female participants. The Saudi decision allows both it and the IOC to look good without much changing on the ground, and it should not come as a surprise if even now, the Saudi Olympic contingent does not include women. The country has restrictions that keep women away from sport. Girls who want to take up games have no access to material or venues, and rigorously observed gender segregation ensures it remains that way. Given these circumstances, there is virtually no woman who makes the Olympic cut. One equestrian hopeful did not qualify because of an injury to her horse.
Last year, as the Arab Spring swept through the region, King Abdullah quickly made some modest concessions, including permitting women to contest and vote in the distant 2015 municipal elections. Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not allowed to drive, but this limited extension of franchise was seen as evidence of a new reformist spirit in the monarchy. The true test of Riyadh’s commitment to the IOC lies not in this year’s games, but whether it is willing to loosen up enough to prepare a women’s contingent for the 2016 Olympics. At the moment, this seems somewhat far-fetched; it is telling that women who play sport underground now fear there will be a greater scrutiny of their activities by the powerful religious establishment. There are a few liberal-minded Saudi royals but the monarchy derives its power and legitimacy from the religious orthodoxy. Sadly, that’s not about to change.