RIYADH (Reuters) - Britain’s envoy to Saudi Arabia said he had spoken to state officials about the possibility of a Saudi woman competing in the Olympics for the first time in London this summer and hoped it would happen though Riyadh’s official team will be all-male.
In April the head of the kingdom’s sporting body said no female athletes would be part of Saudi Arabia’s official Olympic team, but he left the door open to Saudi women participating in London independently.
The gesture was seen as a possible compromise between Saudi government reformers and Islamic hardliners who oppose women doing sports. An independent athlete would be invited by the International Olympic Committee and compete for Saudi Arabia but without formal Saudi endorsement or membership of the team.
“I very much hope we shall see Saudi women athletes this summer,” British Ambassador Tom Phillips told reporters in Riyadh late on Wednesday.
He added that the British government believed Saudi women should be allowed to participate in the games and he had discussed the issue with the Saudi authorities.
The issue has come under international scrutiny after Human Rights Watch called for Saudi Arabia to be banned from the games for never having sent a woman athlete.
The world’s top oil exporter is a profoundly conservative Islamic society in which powerful clerics have repeatedly warned against women playing sports on grounds of public modesty and their own health.
Saudi men have more rights than women in court, while women need the permission of a male “guardian” to work, travel or open a bank account.
Exercise classes are not allowed in government-run girls schools and women’s gyms can only operate if they are classified as health centers and regulated by the Health Ministry.
The government has said it aims to introduce sports in girls schools and last year King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote in future municipal elections, the only public polls held in the monarchy.
Much of the attention to the possibility of Saudi female participation at London 2012 has focused on Dalma Malhas, an equestrian athlete who also participated for Saudi Arabia in the junior Olympics in 2010 in a private capacity.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich