During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia made headlines through performances both off and on the field. Not only did the national team secure a historic win against Messi’s Argentine, the Saudi supporters soon got a reputation as among the loudest and most energetic at the tournament. Football is immensely popular in Saudi Arabia, and waves of fans had travelled to the neighboring country to support the team – both male and female. Back home however, it was only four years since women supporters gained access to football stadiums and less than a year since the Saudi women’s national team played (and won) their first official game.
In just a few years, Saudi Arabia has moved from having no official games, teams or leagues for women football players to having a professional women’s league and a FIFA-ranked national team. Among western critics, the transformation of football from an entirely male domain to include women has been understood as sportswashing, a means for Saudi rulers to enhance the image of Saudi Arabia internationally and lead attention away from human rights abuses. As an analytical framework, such top-down approaches not only ignores dynamics on the societal level, but can contribute to obscure them.
This paper goes beyond the sportswashing/soft power paradigm in both popular and academic conversations on football in the GCC-states and examines the discourse and developments on women’s football in Saudi Arabia in the period leading up to recent reforms, during the reign of King Abdullah (2005 – 2015). Through Saudi media sources, official documents and qualitative interviews with women football players and officials in Saudi Arabia prior to and during the reform period it maps attitudes and arguments for and against women’s participation in football as fans and players. It argues that football in Saudi Arabia is a contested field reflecting broader struggles in society, including the role of women. While women’s football in Saudi Arabia was never banned, organized football was in a legal grey area and efforts at promoting women’s football met considerable resistance from conservative elites. Yet, there was a lot of support for women’s football publicly and privately. The success of recent reforms promoting women’s football comes after years of debate and is made possible by the previous efforts of pioneers.