Saudi Arabia announced late on Sunday its decision to allow female athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wishes to reaffirm its support for the sublime meanings reflected by Olympic Games and the cherished values of excellence, friendship and respect that they represent,” the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement.
Women who qualify for the games will be allowed to participate, the statement said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Monday that talks with the Saudis were “ongoing” and that “we are working to ensure the participation of Saudi women at the Games in London.”
The woman most likely to compete under the Saudi flag in London, show jumper Dalma Malhas, was ruled out on Monday when the World Equestrian Federation (FEI) said the 20-year-old's mare Caramell KS had been sidelined by injury for a month during the qualifying period and had missed a June 17 deadline.
"Regretfully the Saudi Arabian rider Dalma Rushdi Malhas has not attained the minimum eligibility standards and ... will not be competing" at the London Olympics, FEI secretary general Ingmar De Vos told the FEI website.
Malhas had won individual bronze at the junior Olympics in Singapore in 2010.
Saudi Arabia might join Qatar and Brunei in a list of countries that will see female athletes representing their nations at an Olympic event for the first time.
Qatar will send a three-woman team to London comprising shooter Bahia al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Wafa Arakji and sprinter Noor al-Malki.
The 400m hurdler Maziah Mahusin will join another athlete to represent Brunei at the Olympics.
The Saudi National Olympic Committee selects skilled athletes to represent the kingdom in competition, but so far, the committee does not have a women’s section.
The BBC reported that Saudi King Abdullah pushed for the policy change but had delayed the announcement due to last week’s death of heir-apparent Crown Prince Nayef.
Women wanting to take part in sports in the Gulf kingdom face an uphill struggle as they have to do so behind closed doors due to strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces.
A group of 300 women played basketball in the city of Jeddah on the occasion of International Women’s Day last March 8 ─ at an enclosed court with only women as spectators.
As women-linked reforms in the kingdom are being implemented step by step, one sign of change is that Saudi women are being encouraged to pursue world-class educations, with new schools opening for gifted girls and a greater emphasis on attending university.
In 1965, the country’s female literacy rate was 5 percent whereas today, 60 percent of college students are women.
The employment rate for women has nearly tripled from 5.4 percent to 14.4 percent, according to a report in Saudi Gazette on Thursday.
The London Games officially open on July 27 and run until August 12.
The rules of the International Olympic Committee clearly state that ‘any discrimination with regards to a person on the grounds of race, religion, sex or otherwise is incompatible with the Olympic movement’.
Qatar vies to host Olympics
While Qatar is focusing on developing its women’s Olympic athletic programs, the country is also hoping to host the Games 12 years from now.
After failing twice to make the cut for the 2016 and 2020 Games, Qatar will bid once more to host the 2024 summer Olympics, the Qatar Olympic Committee’s general secretary, Saoud bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said on Saturday.
“We have tried it twice, and we will continue. It’s not something we will give up - it’s part of our vision to make Qatar a center for sport,” al-Thani said.
Qatar will host the World Cup football tournament in 2022.