Women empowered by change as Saudi Arabia take more liberal approach

A few weeks ago a delegation of Saudi Arabian journalists visited London and met SJA co-chair Andy Elliott and former chairman David Walker. This led to David being invited to attend the AIPS Asia Congress in Jeddah. Here are some of his observations from his trip. 

(Former chairman of the Sports Journalists’ Association of Great Britain)

The message from the female reporter on stage was compelling and emotional.

She was taking part in a workshop at the 21st Congress of AIPS Asia which was staged in Jeddah last weekend. She was joined on stage by delegates from as far afield as Chinese Taipei and India, Jordan, Dubai and Kenya.

The lady who captivated her audience was from the host nation, Saudi Arabia. She revealed how the night before the congress she had covered an Al-Nassr match in the Saudi League as a working journalist and had driven herself to the stadium by car. Six months ago she would not have been able to do this. It would have been against the law.

But the law has changed. And the women involved in the AIPS debate explained how they feel empowered by the changes. It’s a start.

I explained to the delegates some of the work the SJA in Britain has been doing regarding equal opportunities in many different areas. Some of you may recall that Julie Welch was our first female national newspaper sports writer. A fine writer, she was appointed in 1973. 

Julie Welch: pioneer

Over the past 45 years we have made steps forward. From the SJA general committee largely being a male bastion the numbers of women involved has increased in recent years as has representation of journalists from BAME backgrounds. I told the ladies who spoke in Jeddah how Janine Self was now our co-chair. They could scarcely believe it.

I was asked to write a piece for a Saudi newspaper and website about my impressions on my first visit to their country. I was concerned that my salute to the female breakthrough being just the start might be subject to some heavy subbing. But no, the article duly appeared with the headline ‘Women feel empowered by the changes’. Interestingly, alongside my article was a piece announcing that the Mayor of Jeddah was appointing five women to senior posts within the municipality.  Jobs heading departments that women have never been allowed to fill in the past.

I am not naive enough to claim all the human rights issued that have been flagged up about previous Saudi regimes have suddenly been resolved by the new young guard running the country. But there are signs everywhere of a more liberal approach.

Whisper it to Boris Johnson but the quiet message to women of all ages is that they are no longer expected to have their faces veiled. Traditions are being massively relaxed. Clearly, their starting point is many years behind what we know as personal freedom but they are moving slowly yet perceptibly forward. 

Forty-five years since Julie Welch’s appointment we still have much work to do in the UK regarding equality, not just about opportunities for women but also race equality and ensuring disabled journalists have access to work.

Award winners at the AIPS Asia congress 2018
AIPS vice president Evelyn Watta (Kenya) receives an award

The key fact is that you have to make a start somewhere and that’s what the AIPS Asia women were so happy to talk about over the weekend. They’ve made a breakthrough and appreciate that.

This was my first trip to Saudi Arabia. Many of my preconceptions were proved wrong. It did help that the AIPS congress was being staged during the weekend when Saudis celebrated their national day. It was a weekend long party in Jeddah.

The key fact is that you have to make a start somewhere and that’s what the AIPS Asia women were so happy to talk about over the weekend

And it was certainly the best street party I’ve attended since the World Cup was staged in the United States in 1994. Back then the fans of Mexico, Holland and the Republic of Ireland were all in Florida at the same time. I remember on one unforgettable night Church Street, Orlando was the scene of a party in which the supporters from all three countries sang their songs, danced and partied together. They were football fans and their sport united them as friends. There was no hint of the curse of hooliganism.

The street in downtown Orlando was a sea of green with Mexico and Ireland fans wearing their team’s colours. Well in Jeddah this weekend I saw the green of Saudi Arabia being proudly worn by people happily singing and dancing as they celebrated their nation day.

It was great to stroll along the corniche on Saturday night and enjoy my first bowl of balilah, a bean stew, watch the laser show and savour the sights, sounds and smells by the Red Sea. The parades were spectacular and fun. 

But I must admit that with the temperature still soaring around 34 degrees at midnight, this ageing Englishman did find the climate a little hot. My guide and Saudi mentor Norah Algaqbani smiled sagely and pointed out:”David, you must come back in the summer – when it’s really hot!”