x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Saudi Arabia to send women to London Olympics

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent women athletes to the Olympics, but Qatar has announced it will send a three-woman team to London and Brunei is to send hurdler Maziah Mahusin.

RIYADH // Saudi Arabia will enter women athletes in the Olympics for the first time ever in London this summer, said the Islamic kingdom's London Embassy.

Human-rights groups had called on the International Olympic Committee to bar Saudi Arabia from competing in London, citing its failure to send a woman athlete to an Olympic Games and its ban on sports in girls' state schools.

Powerful Muslim clerics in the conservative state have repeatedly spoken out against the participation of girls and women in sports.

Saudi women hold a lower legal status to men, are banned from driving and need a male guardian's permission to work, travel or open a bank account.

Under King Abdullah, however, the government has pushed for them to have better education and work opportunities and allowed them to vote in future municipal elections, the only public polls held in the kingdom.

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games," said a statement on the embassy website on Sunday.

Equestrian contestant Dalma Malhas is likely to be the country's only female to qualify for thegames which begin on July 27. Ms Malhas, born in the United States, won a bronze medal at the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics without having been nominated by her country, following an invitation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The BBC reported that Saudi's King Abdullah pushed for the policy change, but had delayed the announcement due to last week's death of heir-apparent Crown Prince Nayef.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent women athletes to the Olympics. But Qatar has already announced it will send a three-woman team to London made up of shooter Bahia Al Hamad, swimmer Nada Wafa Arakji and Noor Al Malki, a 100m and 200m sprinter.

Brunei will send a woman to London - hurdler Maziah Mahusin.

In April, the head of the kingdom's general presidency of youth welfare, the body that regulates sports in Saudi Arabia, said it would not prevent women from competing but that they would not have government endorsement.

The IOC said yesterday that talks with the Saudis were "ongoing" and that "we are working to ensure the participation of Saudi women at the Games in London".

Top Saudi clerics, who hold government positions and have always constituted an important support base for the ruling Al Saud royal family, have spoken against female participation in sports.

* with additional reports from Agence-France Presse