Saudi football pro who had to fight to achieve her goals

Saja Kamal and other Equal Playing Field players have broken world records for highest and lowest-altitude football matches. (Supplied)
Updated 05 July 2019

Saudi football pro who had to fight to achieve her goals

  • Saja Kamal was fortunate enough to grow up in a liberal household in Eastern Province
  • Studies did not come in the way of Kamal's passion for football

DUBAI: It wasn’t too long ago that Saudi women were barred from entering sports stadiums, let alone taking part in sport.

Saja Kamal recalls that as a 12-year-old she had to disguise herself as a boy in order to watch her football idol play in her hometown.

“My favorite Saudi player, Yaser Al-Qahtani, was playing in Dammam, and I desperately wanted to watch the game,” she says. “My father snuck me into the stadium after putting my hair up in a bun under my cap and dressing me in baggy clothes.”

With her parents’ support, Kamal has realized her dream of becoming a footballer. Now 29, she is an advocate of women’s participation in sport in Saudi Arabia. The new reforms in the Kingdom are certainly encouraging.

While Kamal was fortunate enough to grow up in a liberal household, her parents paid a price for allowing her to practice football.

“My story started in Saudi Arabia when I was four. My dad registered me with the Saudi Aramco Soccer Association on a private compound in Eastern Province.

“Women in Saudi Arabia don’t play football, especially not in public,” she said. “As a young footballer, I was the only Saudi girl who was involved in the sport until I graduated from high school. My father was the only local who enrolled his daughter to play.”

Saja Kamal coaches women’s teams in her spare time. (Supplied)

His decision did not find favor with other Saudi men. Growing up in a culture where young girls were not encouraged to play sports was a trying experience for Kamal, who had to fight to achieve her goals.

“Not being allowed to practice football at school or university, or in public, and not being able to access stadiums or join a gym, just didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t going to just sit there and take it.

“My passion was football and I wanted to practice it, and I did,” she said.

With no football teams on school grounds, Kamal practiced in a camp in her free time. She improved rapidly and was selected to represent Saudi Arabia abroad in youth tournaments, including the Schwan’s USA Cup in Minnesota.

“Playing internationally helped me meet some of my idols and other top players from around the world,” she said. “However, despite representing Saudi Arabia in over six countries and playing for more than 12 years, we were never officially an actual national team.”

When it was time for Kamal and her sister to go to high school, her father sent both to Bahrain. That allowed Kamal to join the Arsenal Soccer School and became a right-forward.

“We had to commute two hours daily to attend high school in another country,” she said. “But as a result, I received a strong education in English and graduated from high school as a full international baccalaureate student, thus skipping the foundation year of university, before flying to Boston to obtain my bachelor’s, master’s and PMP (Project Management Professional) qualification simultaneously.”

Kamal’s studies didn’t stop her love for the sport. She played for Northeastern University’s women’s team while in college before moving back to Saudi Arabia to coach the women’s team at Al-Fursan Football Club.

At present, she is based in Dubai, where she works as a senior government consultant and coaches women’s teams in her spare time.

Kamal recently joined Equal Playing Field, an NGO focused on encouraging women to take part in sports. Together with 30 other football pros she broke the world record for playing the highest-altitude football match in history, on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. A few months later, the group set a new record for the lowest-altitude game, near the Dead Sea in Jordan.

“Casually entering the same stadiums I snuck into as a kid inspired me to push forward and build an official Saudi national women’s team,” she said.

“Joining Equal Playing Field was driven by those changes and resulted in my determination to break the Guinness World Records.”

• This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

Saudi showjumpers ride for places in Tokyo Olympics team

Updated 16 December 2019

Saudi showjumpers ride for places in Tokyo Olympics team

  • International exposure key to Saudi riders’ success: Equestrian federation chief
  • Visitors enjoyed a fun and exciting atmosphere as riders gave their best performances on the field

RIYADH: Saudi showjumpers at this month’s Diriyah Equestrian Festival aren’t just riding to win — they are battling for places at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the country’s equestrian chief said on Sunday.

“Saudi riders’ participation in international championships is very important,” said Prince Abdullah bin Fahd bin Abdullah, president of the Saudi Equestrian Federation.

“Coming in contact with international riders will provide them with what they need to achieve their ambitions, which we all know are very big. That is why Saudi riders always have remarkable presence on the international level — hard competitors to beat, like the young rider Waleed Al-Ghamdi, who came second in the first stage of the competition.

“We are waiting for the results of this championship to draft the program for the Tokyo Olympics. We have a good chance at winning but, in this sport one can never be sure until the end of the stage. We will always be sure of the self-confidence our riders have, which will be felt as they represent the Kingdom in any competition,” he added.

Prince Abdullah expressed his happiness at the start of the first stage of the International Show Jumping Championship as part of the Diriyah Equestrian Festival

“The success is due to God, the support the sport has from the wise leadership of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the General Sports Authority (GSA)," he said

The festival — which concludes next weekend, Dec. 19-21 — is taking place at Al-Duhami Farm, the equestrian arena built by Saudi Olympic legend Ramzy Al-Duhami and his wife Sara Baban.

In addition to showjumping, the attractions include art and photography exhibitions, cultural activities and a range of cafes and restaurants.

Visitors enjoyed a fun and exciting atmosphere as riders gave their best performances on the field, showcasing their skills and talents.

Diriyah has always been a symbol of authenticity and culture, while entertainment came with its international sports activities characterized by their sophistication, strength and diversity.

Mohammed Al-Mudayfar, owner of the artistic incubator “Resin Art” taking part in the activities, said: “The exhibition aims at highlighting the Kingdom’s identity in line with the festival’s. By participating, I seek to revive the Kingdom’s culture and introduce it to the visitors.

'Resin Art' exhibition is part of the activities lined up during the two-week Diriyah Equestrian Festival. (Photo/Supplied)

“The exhibition includes 60 Saudi artworks. They received huge support so they can showcase them in a suitable manner, in line with this year’s fun and exciting activities,” he added, noting: “Featured handicrafts, paintings and sculptures are all up for sale.  

“We provide the necessary space and materials for any artist that wishes to showcase his work. Supporting young Saudis and talented ones in particular is a national duty that society should sense its importance especially when it is related to our heritage and traditions.”

The activities area had a part dedicated to kids that has educational and entertainment activities such as painting horse heads made of cork.

Another exhibition called “Objectives” managed by 24-year-old Lama Al-Thubaiti offered visitors a variety of jewelry and accessories that could be modified according to their requests. Al-Thubaiti works as a doctor for people with hearing disabilities and has been working to develop her brand for five years now.

“We are very happy with the visitors’ reaction and our presence here is remarkable as we get ready to open our headquarters soon,” she said.  

The activities area also featured a wide range of restaurants, Saudi and international cafes, a photography corner and cultural facilities such as Arabian and historic horse exhibition, engraving, henna and local artists.

Diriyah Equestrian Festival is taking place for the second year in a row to bring the international event to the Kingdom, reflect the traditional values of equestrianism according to European standards. The event will run for two weeks, providing participants with the chance to qualify to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the World Championship.