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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Saudi Arabia opens sports stadium doors to women for first time

The women watched a musical show and a play on Saudi history to mark national day

National Day celebrations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters
National Day celebrations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

Hundreds of women thronged a sports stadium for the first time to mark Saudi Arabia's national day on Saturday, celebrated across the kingdom with a raucous display of concerts, folk dance and fireworks.

The presence of women at the King Fahd stadium marks a departure from previous celebrations in the Gulf kingdom where rules were in place on public segregation of the sexes.

Women were allowed to enter the stadium, a previously male-only venue used mostly for football matches, with their families and seated separately from single men to watch a musical show and a play on Saudi history.

"We hope in the future that there will be no restrictions on our entrance to the stadium," Um Abdulrahman, a woman from the northwestern city of Tabuk, said.

"For many years ago I have hoped that women will be given the same rights as men."

As a swell of enthusiastic women cheering swept through the stadium, with a few wearing colourful wigs on top of their veils, some Saudi men on social media lauded their participation as a "historic" moment.

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"Looks like women bought all the tickets!" one Saudi man quipped on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not allowed to drive, despite ambitious government reforms aimed at boosting female employment.

Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member - normally the father, husband or brother - must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

Saudi women take their seats at the King Fahd stadium. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters
Saudi women take their seats at the King Fahd stadium. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

But the kingdom appears to be relaxing some norms as part of its "Vision 2030" plan for economic and social reforms conceived by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Iconic buildings in Riyadh were bathed in green light and stereos blared patriotic songs as revellers raced through the streets in cars bedecked with the national flag.

With drumming and poetry, traditional sword dancers celebrating the warrior tradition of Saudi Arabia strode through Tahlia Street, an upscale shopping strip in the heart of Riyadh.

"On this great occasion, we feel that the kingdom has become an important state with a pioneering role at the regional and international levels," Prince Mohammed said in a speech earlier cited by the official Saudi Press Agency.

People watch a projection depicting a portrait of King Salman during an event in the capital Riyadh on September 23, 2017. AFP
People watch a projection depicting a portrait of King Salman during an event in the capital Riyadh on September 23, 2017. AFP

The 32-year-old prince is set to be the first millennial to occupy the throne in a country where half the population is under 25, although the timing of his ascension remains unknown.

"On this cherished anniversary of the unification of our dear country, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we assert its effective and influential status," the prince said in his speech.

"The kingdom is an active member in the G20, the world's strongest 20 economies, and is keen to achieve the kingdom's Vision 2030 that represents the beginning of a new phase of hard work for a better future, with the same Islamic values."

Saudi families arrive at a stadium to attend an event in the capital Riyadh on September 23, 2017 commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
Saudi families arrive at a stadium to attend an event in the capital Riyadh on September 23, 2017 commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

Saudi chefs in the Red Sea city of Jeddah broke the Guinness world record for baking the biggest marble cake - with green icing - to mark national day, the government said.