DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s leg of the Ladies European Tour kicked off Thursday with a prize of $1 million up for grabs in the latest push by the kingdom to host major sports and entertainment events.
The tournament is sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s oil company, Aramco, and runs until Sunday. It will be followed by a women’s team tournament for a shared prize of $500,000.
While women players are allowed to wear long shorts in what appears to be a first in the conservative kingdom, it appears that most — if not all — have opted in the lead up to don pants and polo shirts in respect of local customs.
The changes reflect a loosening of social restrictions that has swept Saudi Arabia since King Salman’s ascension to power in 2015.
The event is being held at a country club in King Abdullah Economic City, a Western-friendly business hub north of the Red Sea city of Jiddah. The scenic golf course sits alongside the blue waters of the sea.
Women in Saudi Arabia traditionally wear floor-length loose robes known as abayas, which are often black. Most Saudi women also cover their hair and face in black veils, although in major cities like Jiddah and Riyadh younger Saudi women are increasingly forgoing veils in public and wearing abayas with colorful prints.
Women in the kingdom are also being encouraged to play sports and are allowed to participate in physical education classes in government-run schools. Saudi Arabia also just launched an intiative offering a complimentary membership inclusive of golf lessons and golf course access in Riyadh and King Abdullah Economic City to 1,000 Saudi women.
For years, influential clerics in Saudi Arabia had criticized female participation in the workforce and in sports as taboo and as a threat to society.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, emboldened by his father King Salman, clipped the powers of the religious police, who would order women to cover their faces and chastise them for wearing bright nail polish. The young prince’s support for broad social reforms is part of an attempt to draw greater foreign investment, modernize the economy and open Saudi Arabia to tourists.
As part of that effort, Saudi Arabia announced plans to host a Formula One race next year. One standout feature of the Saudi race, however, will be the absence of champagne popping by the winners and alcoholic beverages flowing in the stands and at after parties. Consumption of any alcohol in the Muslim kingdom remains outlawed.
Still, some big-name athletes have stayed away amid criticism the events are an effort at “sportswashing” by diverting attention from the kingdom’s human rights record. Prince Mohammed’s reputation took a hit following international outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018 and a crackdown on activists, including women’s rights advocates who are imprisoned on vague national security charges.