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Saudis launch first women’s professional golf tournament. Is this a breath of fresh air or a ‘sportswash’?

The first Arab professional on the Ladies’ European Tour says Saudi Arabia is making “improvements” as it prepares to host its first women’s golf events.

The Saudi Ladies International starts today (November 17 2020) with a separate team event set to take place from 17 November.

Professional women’s golf has never taken place before in the kingdom, which has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record.

“To me it’s huge improvement,” said Moroccan professional Maha Haddioui.

“To be part of something so huge, a moment in history, to me it’s a new Saudi when it comes to a lot of things and to be part of that is really big.”

A prize find of $1m (£750,000) is in place for the this week’s singles tournament at Royal Greens Golf Club.

Saudi Arabia, which recently announced it will host its first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2021, has come under scrutiny in recent years for its staging of major sporting events, with human rights organisations such as Amnesty International saying the country is seeking to ‘sportswash’ its reputation, the BBC reports.

Amnesty’s head of campaigns has said sporting fixtures such as moor racing’s Formula One events offer the Saudis “a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation”.

The Saudi Ladies International was due to take place in March until the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement. At the time England’s Meghan MacLaren had said she would boycott the event for the ‘sportswashing’ reasons mentioned by Amnesty and others.

Until 2018 women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and, although a number of reforms have taken place in recent years, one activist who campaigned for the right for women to drive is currently refusing to eat in protest at the conditions in detention. Her family allege she has been offered freedom if she agrees to say she has not been tortured.

“No matter where you go you can look at flaws or what’s improving,” said Haddioui. “By looking at what’s improving, this is where you keep improving. To me the glass is half full; Saudi is making huge improvements.”

The 32-year-old joined the Ladies’ European Tour as a professional in 2012 and has played over 100 events in it.

She says professional sport is not yet viewed as a viable career path for women in the region but feels the staging of landmark events will offer aspiring sportswomen a vision of what they could achieve.

“It will motivate a lot of young girls to take up the game,” she added. “I think in the coming years there will be a lot more Arab female professional golfers.

“The game changed my life. I travel the world doing what I love. I wish the same for every woman in the Arab world – to pursue these opportunities.”