RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A U.S.-raised Saudi Arabian princess freshly appointed to increase female participation in sport plans to help licence gyms and modify outdoor spaces for women in the ultra-conservative Gulf Kingdom, she said in an interview on Monday.
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud was last week tapped for the job at the General Sports Authority in a country where women are barred from driving and subject to a restrictive male guardianship system.
But as part of a sweeping economic reform and amid high obesity rates, Riyadh is also planning to make it easier for women to work out.
In her first interview with English-language media since her appointment, Princess Reema said there was “no turning back” on the plans, but warned the pace of reform may not be fast enough for a Western audience.
“We will not go and break societal norms and we will not go and create cultural clashes, what we will do is create opportunities,” said Princess Reema, 41, speaking in Rio where she has been supporting the four female Saudi athletes competing in the 2016 Olympic Games.
“Our biggest mandate right now is mass participation,” she said, adding she would have more details once she officially takes up her role next month.
Women in Saudi Arabia face significant hurdles to practice sport. They must wear head-to-toe garments in public, observe strict rules on gender segregation and obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, study or marry.
Women’s gyms are not eligible for licences, so they are scarce or operate on the sly.
While U.S.-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this month there had been some progress in women’s rights to participate in sport, it called on Saudi Arabia to remove the “serious barriers” that remain.
“I’m glad that people are recognising we’re moving,” said Princess Reema, who grew up in the D.C. area because her father was the long-time ambassador to Washington and has gone on to work in business.
“I understand that from an international point of view they might not think we’re moving fast enough. But one thing they need to absolutely understand in the Middle East is that it’s an elastic community. If we pull too fast, you break that elastic.”
Princess Reema declined to comment on the likelihood of physical education being included in girls’ public schools or the odds of women being allowed to drive, saying that was beyond the scope of her role.
But as part of nurturing women’s participation in sport, she said her agenda would include pushing for female coaches, women’s bathrooms in public spaces, and Shariah-compliant workout clothes.
The female Saudi athletes at the Olympics - only the second group ever, in Rio with male guardians - are already inspiring their counterparts back home to put their sneakers on, Princess Reema said.
“The overwhelming majority, especially of young women, has essentially said: ‘if they can do it means I can’,” said Princess Reema, a basketball fan and skier.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli