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Saudi Arabia’s next goal: women’s sport

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation wants to grow women's football at home and across Asia Saudi Arabian Football Federation
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation wants to grow women's football at home and across Asia
  • Likely Saudi investment in an overseas women’s football team 
  • Kingdom may fund other sports such as athletics
  • Sector’s contribution to Saudi GDP is $7bn

Just five years ago, Saudi women were banned from watching football at stadiums.

Fast forward to 2022 and Saudi Arabia has officially announced its intention to bid for the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

The rapid turnaround represents part of the kingdom’s efforts to position itself as a global sporting destination, with the sector’s contribution to Saudi GDP having grown from $2.4 billion in 2016 to approximately $7 billion today.

Under its Vision 2030 blueprint, sport should contribute 0.6 percent of GDP by the end of the decade.

According to research by the Ministry of Sports, female participation has increased by about 150 percent since 2015.

The bid comes on the back of the successful Women’s European Championships held in England, which is forecast to deliver a £54 million boost to host cities.

Experts now see a major Saudi investment in an overseas women’s football team as a “natural next step” following the kingdom’s high-profile purchase of Newcastle United last year.

Person, Human, Crowd
Having bought Newcastle United, will Saudi invest next in an overseas women’s football team?

“The future of women’s football is bright and we are committed to growing the game here and throughout Asia,” Yasser Almisehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), said.

“More and more young girls are playing football in this country and we want to inspire them further.” 

Monika Staab, the German head coach of the Saudi Arabian women’s national team, added: “The kingdom has embraced women’s football. When I speak to girls throughout the country, I see their excitement for the game. 

“The 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup is an unprecedented opportunity to inspire a generation of girls to achieve their football dreams.”

SAFF established the Women’s Football Department in 2019 and the kingdom’s first women’s regional league was born in November 2021, followed by a national championship in January.

The country’s women’s national football team was set up in 2021 and played its first official international friendly match in February in a tournament in the Maldives.

However the major transformation has not been without its critics. Responding to reports that Saudi Arabia was to launch a women’s football league in 2020, Lynn Maalouf, then Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, said: “The launch of a women’s football league there is no doubt a step that will be welcomed by Saudi citizens.

“As with other reforms relating to women in the kingdom however, it is also a painful reminder of the abysmal situation for the very women and men who have fought for such change.”

But officials are undaunted, with Lamia Bahaian, board member of the SAFF and supervisor of the Women’s Football Department, saying: “We have huge ambitions for the development of the women’s game in the kingdom and the recent progress has been incredible. 

“We really are entering a new and exciting era for women’s football.”

Schoolgirls appear to be at the centre of this change as the country has established the first regional football centre for under-17 female players while coaching courses are being delivered in schools around the kingdom. 

A further 15 courses have enabled 544 teachers to be referees in preparation of the launch of the first Girls Schools League next month.

Officials said growing the grassroots of women’s football will be central to the bid. “From players to coaches, from fans to officials, Saudi Arabia is committed to developing and growing women’s football to take the game to the next level,” a SAFF statement added.

Michael Bessey, GCC regional representative with strategic advisory firm Albright Stonebridge Group’s Middle East and North Africa practice, told AGBI: “The economic potential of women’s sports is substantial but hard to quantify. 

“Saudi Arabia will likely pursue a two-pronged approach to seizing these opportunities, firstly by hosting major women’s athletic events in the kingdom, and offering large prize purses to attract leading international athletes to these competitions.

“It will also look at investing in women’s athletic teams, clubs, and leagues – either on its own or in partnership with existing organisations. 

“Saudi Arabia has made several high-profile investments in international male sports in recent years – most notably its takeover of Newcastle United and its recent launch of LIV Golf; making similar investments in women’s sports would be a natural next step.”

Newcastle United's away shirt next season@aycazahraakcay/Twitter
Newcastle United’s away shirt is heavily influenced by its Saudi owners. Credit: @aycazahraakcay/Twitter

The kingdom’s Asian Cup bid comes at the same time as a huge increase in the profile of the women’s game. 

This summer’s Euros in England broke attendance and TV viewing records while more than 1.2 billion viewers watched the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

An EY report, produced prior to the Euros, forecast that the tournament would deliver £54 million in economic activity to the nine host cities in England. 

A UEFA study said that the 8.6 million amateur players registered in 2020 across 25 European countries generated a combined economic impact of over $47 billion including benefits such as savings in healthcare costs and societal improvements.

Management consultancy Strategic Gears said in a recent research paper that beyond the physical and economic benefits, the sport sector in Saudi Arabia has also achieved great strides in female empowerment. 

“This contributes to the country’s image of opening-up,” it noted. “Greater female access to sports in the kingdom, where women’s engagement in sports has been relatively rare, also presents considerable prospects for sports-focused enterprises and other investors across the sports value chain.”

Laurent Viviez, a partner and MENA sports practice leader at EY, told AGBI: “Saudi Arabia’s global sporting ambitions can help build its global image from two perspectives.

“First, hosting international competitions or sports events in Saudi Arabia is a great way to showcase the kingdom’s openness to the world, to attract visitors to the kingdom and support in developing the local tourism or MICE industries. 

“The success of Saudi athletes in international competition also helps reinforce the perception of a young, successful and modern nation.”

EY estimates that the sport events sector can generate revenues of $3 billion by 2024, representing a “huge opportunity” for infrastructure developers, event organisers and marketing companies.

Viviez added: “Saudis need role models to stimulate their interest in sports and athletic sports in particular. As a result, Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in elite athlete programs. 

“MAHD Academy, for example, was launched recently to scout and grow elite athlete talent across the kingdom,” he explained.

Person, Human, Shoe
The Saudi women’s team is training for success

A chequered history

  • Until recently the kingdom’s conservative social norms and legal restrictions effectively barred women from participating in sports. In 2012, the country took the step of allowing female athletes to join its Olympic team for the first time.
  • In 2013 the first dedicated sports centre for girls was opened in Khobar while girls were officially allowed to take part in sports in private schools.
  • Under Vision 2030 the government has lifted restrictions on women’s participation in sports and actively encouraged women and girls to join sports. 
  • Women are now allowed to attend sporting events at public stadiums, public girls’ schools offer physical education classes, and the government has launched family sports days aimed at introducing girls to sports at a young age.
  • The kingdom also ended its ban on women drivers in 2018, while the country is hosting more gender-mixing cultural and entertainment events.

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