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Saudi female athletes fear crackdown after London

By Hassan Ammar

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 2 2012 3:20 a.m. MDT

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 and the all-powerful clerics on each proposal he's made toward easing restrictions on women.

Ahmad Salem al-Marzooqi, the editor-in-chief of Shesports.net, an online magazine that aims to cover men's and women's sports events in the kingdom, said women need to obtain basic rights that are equal to those of men in Saudi Arabia before they can compete for their country abroad.

"We are looking for ways to achieve rights for women inside Saudi Arabia," al-Marzooqi said.

"It's a conflicting situation," he said on the Olympics campaign. "If they send some to participate, it may be good for the future, but it's definitely not good for the present situation. There will be side effects."

Rights groups claim a lot has to change for women in Saudi Arabia to convince international sporting community that the leadership in the conservative kingdom is — according to Monday's announcement from the country's embassy in Britain — "looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games."

Human Rights Watch said the statement is intended to appease international criticism ahead of the games as gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia remains "institutional and entrenched." The New York-based group warned the IOC against becoming "complacent because one or two Saudi women are allowed to compete in the London Olympics."

"The fact that so few women are 'qualified' to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country's restrictions on women's rights," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for the New York-based group.

Saudi officials have repeatedly suggested they'd allow Malhas, the equestrian, 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 has failed to qualify after her horse was sidelined by injury and missed a month's work during the qualifying period.

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 speaking on condition of anonymity because talks on a special arrangement for the Saudis are ongoing.

IOC President Jacques Rogge has said he is "optimistic" that Saudi Arabia will send women athletes, even though talks with the kingdom are "not an easy situation." Saudi officials, who have publicly adamantly opposed sending women to London had left open a possibility that women, studying abroad would be able to compete outside of the team as independent athletes.

However, that option was quashed after pressure from human rights groups and the IOC. It was also criticized by Saudi-based athletes like Abdullah.

"It's a pity for us. We play sports in Saudi Arabia, but they get to compete abroad because our country does not want to give us a chance to prove ourselves," Abdullah said. "Do I have to leave my country to show what we can achieve?"

Most Saudis cannot afford to study abroad, she added. Besides, she is convinced she needs to stay if she wants to make a difference.

"If I don't achieve our goal to play and compete at home for me and for my team, then I will for those who will play after us," Abdullah said.

Surk reported from London. Follow Barbara Surk on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/BarbaraSurkAP

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