Football fans in KSA: Saudi Women cheering on the sidelines

October 18, 2018
Aymen Al Faraj

Some call the game of football ‘the language of the world’; it connects more people together than any other spoken language. Nevertheless, the culture of the sport differs from one place to another. Fans in Europe associate it with groups of friends, beer and bars. In Egypt it’s known for Shisha and outdoor screening of games. However in Saudi Arabia, my homeland, it was always known for being a male-only spectator sport; that is until January 2018, when the Kingdom opened its football stadium turnstiles to women for the first time.

The Kingdom is very well-known for its hierarchy and male dominance due to its conservative and strong religious beliefs. Segregation was always the norm in the Kingdom, women and men who are not related by blood were not allowed to be seen together without the female having a male guardian. However, in the past few years, this has changed drastically. Groups of women and men gather in coffee shops, go to beach clubs, walk together around the malls and attend local music festivals. Five years ago these activities would have been impossible.

The decision to allow women to attend football games is a historic one in the culture of Saudi football. Many Saudis questioned the initiative as they saw an atmosphere filled with adrenaline and male testosterone as a dangerous and overwhelming place, not suitable for their women. But the truth is, the majority of young, Saudi women are well-educated, well-traveled, and do not share the same ideas and mind-sets that the older generations were brought up with.

With the lack of attractions and entertainment options in the Kingdom (until only this year, cinemas were banned in the Kingdom), this decision transforms the leisure landscape in KSA, adding an exciting new family activity for residents of Saudi Arabia.

It also opens up a new stream of income to local football teams. Females who are passionate about their hometown have started rooting for their local team which has increased the number of their fans, and subsequently the football fanbase as a whole. According to Saudi press reports, the economic impact of women attending matches would increase the audience at various stadiums by 15 percent. It is rare that a stadium in the Kingdom would sell out all of their seats, but with the potential new audience, it could become customary for a big city team to sell out their stadium on big game days. As with so many sports events in the UAE, we can also expect to see more in the way of ‘fan zones’ and family entertainment in and around the stadium, again adding a whole new dimension to the atmosphere and generating greater income for the clubs.

It’s an exciting time for the Kingdom and changes are happening very quickly. Just a few months before allowing women into stadiums, Saudi Arabia announced that it will allow women to drive within the Kingdom. These are only two of many tangible changes that are very well-regarded by the people not only in Saudi but also across the world. Most Saudis are very optimistic and believe that these are the start of something greater – as the famous saying goes ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’.

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