The Participation of Saudi Women in the Olympic Games
The inclusion of two women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s team for the Olympic Games in London meant that – for the first time—every participating country included female athletes. One might add that on many teams a large percentage are women, and that the Saudi breakthrough has encouraged some commentators to say that London 2012 will be known as the “Women’s Olympics”.
The hitherto cautious approach of the inclusion of women in sport by Muslim countries is due primarily to cultural attitudes relating to respect for women, rather than any specific religious edict. Indeed, the equal status of women is one of the core principals of the Muslim faith.
Participation of women from predominantly Muslim societies is not new, however. A key example is the fact that a senior member of the executive board of the International Olympic Committee is a female Muslim athlete: Nawal el Moutawakel of Morocco, a gold medallist in the 400 meter hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984. Furthermore, it is not impossible that she could be elected to take over as Chief Executive of the IOC in the next elections for the post.
So, given that the participation of Muslim women is primarily a matter of cultural acceptance, what shall we conclude from the initiative by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to include women athletes? Is it a reluctant acceptance of the participation of women in sport, or is it merely a token gesture of public diplomacy?
It is neither of these two timid acts. For many years, the whole concept of development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – social, political and economic – has been the recognition that whereas evolutionary change in all things is both natural and essential, its consequent effectiveness in implementation is directly related to a pace of application, which guarantees acceptance within the framework of wide cultural acceptance. Wise leadership in any context recognises that the pace of acceptance of change can never be constant within an entire society–or organisation—and that great skill and sensitivity is essential to managing change successfully. The key words are ‘perception’ and ‘readiness’.
In recent years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the participation of women in all sectors of society – public and private – has increased immensely. Many women hold senior government posts, and others run successful businesses – some of them very large. Greater emphasis and acceptance of the role and contribution of women in society has been greatly advanced by the evidently positive consequences which result from this policy. A key element has been that the whole process of ensuring the valuable, and essential, participation of women has been managed carefully within the framework of long standing cultural traditions. The inclusion of our two women athletes in the Olympic Games – and the development of associated infrastructure for women athletes - follows exactly this same well-tried process.
One shining example of the success of what one could regard as guided evolutionary development is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This is a co-educational university of international standing with a core aim of promoting and encouraging the development of talent - female and male equally - and supporting new initiatives which have socially beneficial or economic prospects, with business and financial expertise to full implementation.
In some societies, revolution may be a chosen path rather than evolution but, sadly, as we see too often, this approach can have tragic and potentially devastating long-term consequences, which benefit neither humankind nor society. The reaction of revolution over evolution is usually a consequence of failure in leadership. Recognition of the self-evident principle that the pace of necessary change varies according to circumstances is the key issue. Provided that this is well recognized, accurately evaluated, and effectively addressed in a timely manner through leadership which respects all those whom they lead, there can be little doubt that peaceful and orderly evolution is always better than any hasty or violent alternative. This is not a mere matter of public diplomacy: it is a core principle of policy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Most Read CPD Blogs
Visit CPD's Online Library
Explore CPD's vast online database featuring the latest books, articles, speeches and information on international organizations dedicated to public diplomacy.