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
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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.


Saudis recall history’s greatest TV event: Apollo moon landing

Updated 20 July 2019
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Saudis recall history’s greatest TV event: Apollo moon landing

  • The TV images beamed from 320,000km away in space left viewers astounded but happy
  • The TV coverage influenced thinking and attitudes in the Kingdom just like everywhere else

DUBAI: It was a sleepy afternoon in Saudi Arabia, just days before the end of the school vacation, and Saudis had their eyes glued to their TV sets as they waited for live coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Before July 20, 1969, the idea of a human walking on the moon was the stuff of science fiction. However, almost overnight, sci-fi had turned into reality with a live broadcast showing American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s dramatic descent onto the empty lunar landscape.

Between science fiction and science fact, the live coverage of the lunar landing amounted to an unusual fusion of news and entertainment.

Saudi TV technicians bring the first live images of Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing to
viewers around the Kingdom. (Supplied photo)

The historic images — beamed back to Earth more than 320,000 km away — left Saudi viewers astounded and confused, but mostly elated to be witnessing such an epoch-making event.

The event was covered live on television and radio stations in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis and residents living in the Kingdom watched it on Saudi channels 1 and 3, owned by Saudi Aramco.

Hessah Al-Sobaie, a housewife from Al-Dawadmi, recalled watching the moon landing from her grandparents’ backyard as an 11-year-old.

“It felt weird watching a human walk on the moon,” she told Arab News. “I remember the endless questions I asked as a child.”

While most people were aware that going to the moon was risky, many Saudis believed that such a journey was impossible and all but unthinkable.


EVENTS WATCH

1. NASA’s Apollo 11 mission control room in Houston has been restored to its 1969 condition and regular tours
will be conducted by the Johnson Space Center.

2. NASA ‘Science Live’ will have a special edition on July 23 on board the aircraft carrier that recovered the Apollo 11 capsule.

3. A summer moon festival and family street fair will be held in Wapakoneta, Ohio, from July 17-20.

4. Downtown Houston’s Discovery green will host a free public screening of the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary, with an appearance by NASA astronaut Steve Bowen.

5. Amateur radio operators will host a series of events on July 20-21.

6. The US Space and Rocket Center is staging a special ‘Rockets on Parade’ exhibition.


The Apollo 11 mission prompted discussions across the Middle East over the reality of what people saw on their TV screens. Some Saudi scholars found it hard to believe their eyes.

“I watched it, and I clearly remember each and every detail of the coverage,” Hayat Al-Bokhari, 68, a retired school principal in Jeddah, said.

“My father, Abdul, was 56 at the time. He said the landing was faked. He couldn’t believe or accept that a human could go to the moon.”

Khaled Almasud, 70, a retired university lecturer, was a student in the US state of Oregon at the time of the mission. “Americans were stunned and over the moon, happy with their national achievement. But many Saudis like me were either in denial or insisting on more proof.”

Since the beginning of the 1960s, King Faisal had been rapidly transforming Saudi Arabia, inviting foreign-trained experts to help build a modern country with world-class infrastructure.

Billie Tanner, now 90, lived in the Kingdom for many years with her husband, Larry, and their two children, Laurie and Scott, aged six and four. The family had just arrived in Saudi Arabia and headed to the Aramco compound in Ras Tanura in the Eastern Province.

A screengrab of video of the first lunar landing beamed toward Earth and shown on television worldwide. 

“We were going through a culture shock,” she told Arab News. “I wasn’t thinking of the moon landing, but we heard about it on the news from Dhahran.

“My kids tried to see the astronauts on the moon with their binoculars and said they could see them walking around.”

The Apollo 11 spaceflight has become a milestone in the annals of human history and science. Since 1969 space exploration has greatly expanded man’s knowledge of the universe, far beyond Earth’s limits.

The captivating live coverage of the moon landing inspired millions of people around the world, profoundly influencing their thinking and attitudes.

The people of Saudi Arabia were no exception.