A recent post on Instagram from Zinedine Zidane features a photo on set with Saudi female footballer Farah Jefry. “Thank you for sharing your passion for football with me, keep going on your journey,” the French veteran captioned.
Jefry became the first Saudi athlete to sign with Adidas as brand ambassador, building on her nascent - albeit piercing - success on the pitch. At merely 18-years old, she is a footballing prodigy – last season saw her rise as top scorer for the Jeddah Eagles.
Not unlike her teammates, she is already looking for ways to push her success forward: “I am happy with the development of women’s football in Saudi Arabia, and I aspire to do more with the hope that the spotlight will be on more female talents.”
Jefry is not alone. Her rapid rise to stardom is a microcosm of the sector at large – one in which the nexus of sports and female empowerment is a central tenet of national development.
Jefry’s breakthrough comes at a critical juncture. Three years after women were first allowed into football stadiums, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) launched the inaugural edition of the Saudi Women’s Football League.
Sixteen teams will take part, with region-bound fixtures across Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. The league’s kickoff coincides with exceptional attention and significant financial support given to women’s football at both grassroots and professional levels. SAFF set up three training centers for girls between the ages of 13 and 17 across the country, with plans to establish up to nine by 2025.
While unprecedented, this marks a natural continuation of reforms empowering women through sports in line with the region’s most expansive reform project, Vision 2030.
Saudi Arabia is experiencing an unprecedented socio-economic transformation. The Saudi sports sector, like other soft-power-generating sectors, is set to play an integral role in ensuring that transformation is a success. How exactly? A successful sports sector is uniquely positioned to accelerate economic diversification, promote public health, increase the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI), and more broadly, amplify the visibility and attractiveness of Saudi culture and tourism.
Few can argue with the intrinsic value of these byproducts. But the true impact of sports lies in its ability to showcase and empower the Kingdom’s most valuable asset in pursuit of national development: no, not oil, but the country’s ambitious youthful majority.
Beyond economic efficacy, the sector’s biggest strides are best seen in the realm of Saudi female empowerment.
The rapid pace of growth in the sports sector is meant to match Vision 2030’s ambition. Shattered at similar pace is the naïve view that sports play a peripheral role in empowering women. Female participation in sports has skyrocketed by 150 percent since 2015. In the same period, the number of official female national teams representing the Kingdom went from zero to 23. Saudi sportswomen notched up around 100 medals spanning regional and international events – fencing topped the list with 29 medals.
The substantive uptick in grassroots bottom-up engagement is coupled with increased inclusion and representation from the top-down. A record 12 Saudi women hold prominent international sporting positions. Female board members are now represented in over 38 Saudi sports federations, thereby ensuring inclusive progress extends to the upper echelons of the sector. These strides are largely unprecedented and are only set to increase in both size and magnitude as reforms unfold.
Launching a national football league for women marks the tip of the iceberg.
History was made on the 2nd of November when the Saudi women national team held their first session led by German coach Monika Staab. The 62-year-old German sports icon brings a wealth of experience to a footballing scene budding with unmet potential.
The squad’s first test comes against the Maldives in February. Staab, having coached the national women's teams for Bahrain and Qatar, is brimming with optimism: “It might not be obvious to those who have not visited the country, but this has to be one of the most exciting opportunities anywhere in sport… very excited and proud to be playing a small part in the journey of one of the world’s fastest-growing sports countries.”
On a more fundamental level, trailblazing women leading sector-wide progress are paving the way for future generations to channel creative expression and social responsibility through sports – an avenue hitherto uncharted.
The integration of Saudi female expertise into key organizational hierarchies will inexorably inspire young women to play a more active role within the local sports sector. This positive feedback loop will ensure the sports ecosystem matures within an inclusive, self-sustaining framework.
When Vision 2030 outlined the importance of increasing participation in sports from 13 per cent to 40 percent, it not only signaled the centrality of the sector to national development; it also ushered the dawn of an era where sports and female empowerment are inextricably entwined.
It is therefore no surprise that firsts are ubiquitous. The first Saudi female referee, Sham al-Ghamdi, is rising through the ranks; first Saudi motorsports woman driver, Reema Juffali, recently announced that she had signed for Douglas Motorsport in the BRDC British F3 Championship; the Kingdom’s first female boxing coach, Rasha Al-Khamis, became a member of the women’s committee for the Asian boxing organization.
Saudi females are taking the sector by storm, spearheading an athletic renaissance wherein bottom-up enthusiasm is empowered by vision and resources from the top-down.