LONDON – A month before the London Games, Saudi Arabia appears to be moving closer to sending female athletes to the Olympics for the first time amid mounting pressure on the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom to grant women more rights.
Deliberations by Saudi officials on sending women to the games have been wrapped in secrecy for fear of a backlash from the powerful religious establishment within a deeply traditional society, in which women are severely restricted in public life and are not even allowed to drive.
Saudi Arabia is one of three countries that have never included women in their Olympic teams, along with Qatar and Brunei. The International Olympic Committee said talks have been ongoing with Saudi Arabia to ensure participation and a statement by the country's embassy in London said female athletes, who qualify, could be allowed to participate.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games," the statement said.
Human Rights Watch said the announcement is "an important step forward," but the New York-based group cautioned that gender discrimination in the country remains "institutional and entrenched."
"It is only right that the Saudi government should play by the Olympic rules," Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said. "But an 11th-hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia."
There are no written laws that ban or restrict women from participating in sport in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines. The stigma of female athletes is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views which hold that giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sin.
Saudi officials have been sending mixed signals for months. While some said that they had been working on an arrangement with the IOC, top sports officials in the kingdom were adamant in publicly denying the possibility of female athletes competing at the Olympics.
Saudi Olympic Committee president Prince Nawaf said in April that female participation had not been approved by the country's leaders and that Saudi-based women traveling to London would be contrary to the country's traditions and norms.
Nawaf left open the possibility of Saudi women who are studying abroad being able to compete outside of the team as independent athletes. However, that option was quashed after pressure from human rights groups and the IOC.
On Monday, a Saudi official said an announcement by King Abdullah about Saudi women's participation in the Olympics was expected some days ago, but was postponed after the death of Crown Prince Nayef.
King Abdullah has taken modest steps to reform and modernize the oil-rich nation since he ascended the throne in 2005. He has faced staunch opposition from the hardline members of the royal family on each proposal he's made toward easing restrictions on women.
Saudi women bear the brunt of their nation's deeply conservative values. They are often the target of unwanted attention from the kingdom's religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses.
Women do participate in sports in the kingdom, including clandestine soccer and basketball leagues. There are no national competitions, however, that would allow Saudi women to compete in order to qualify for international events.
If the Saudis do send women to the games, then female athletes in judo and in track and field are considered possibilities for the games, sports officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press while speaking on condition of anonymity.
Because Saudi women may not meet the international qualifying standards, the IOC may grant them Olympic entry based on "special circumstances," an IOC official told the AP in March, adding that the IOC has insisted on more than one woman on the Saudi team, and hopes for at least two or three.
Saudi officials have repeatedly hinted they'd allow equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in showjumping at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, to compete at the London Games. But the International Equestrian Federation said Monday the 20-year-old athlete will not be competing at the Olympics because she has failed to achieve "the minimum eligibility standard required for the Olympic Games" by June 17.
Malhas' horse was sidelined by injury and missed a month's work during the qualifying period, the federation said in a statement.
IOC President Jacques Rogge has said he is "optimistic" that Saudi Arabia will send women athletes, but last month said any deal was far from complete. Describing talks with Saudi Arabia as "not an easy situation," Rogge said discussions were under way with Saudi Olympic authorities and with athletes themselves.
Qatar and Brunei are expected to include women, according to the IOC. If some arrangement can be made for the Saudis, all national Olympic committees in London would include women athletes for the first time in Olympic history.
About 10,500 athletes are expected to compete in London, representing more than 200 national Olympic committees.