RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi women will for the first time be allowed to enter a sports stadium on Friday to watch a soccer match between two local teams — though they will be segregated from the male-only crowd with designated seating in the so-called "family section."
The move is Saudi Arabia's first social reform planned for this year granting women greater rights. The kingdom has also announced that starting in June, women will be allowed to drive, lifting the world's only ban on female drivers.
To prepare for the change, the kingdom has designated "family sections" in the stands for women, separated by barriers from the male-only crowd. The stadiums have also been fitted with female prayer areas, restrooms and smoking areas, as well as separate entrances and parking lots for female spectators.
While many have welcomed the decision, others have spoken out against it. An Arabic hashtag on Twitter about women entering stadiums had more than 50,000 tweets by mid-day.
Many used the hashtag to write that women's place should be in the home, focusing on their children and preserving their faith, and not out at a stadium where male crowds frequently curse and chant raucously.
Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is King Salman's son and heir, is seen as the driving force behind these changes. He is set to inherit a country where more than half the population is under 25 years-old and hungry for change.
Rather than grant citizens greater political rights, the crown prince has instead looked to boost his popularity by curbing the influence of ultraconservatives. His reforms are also aimed in part at raising local spending on entertainment as the country faces years of budget deficit amid continued lower oil prices.
The first stadium to open its doors to women will be in the Red Sea city of Jiddah for a match between Saudi soccer teams Al-Ahli and Al-Batin later on Friday evening. The national stadium in the capital, Riyadh, will open to women a day later, on Saturday, followed by the western city of Dammam next Thursday.
These stadiums were built with hundreds of millions of dollars when oil prices were nearly double what they are now. The government spent lavishly on the stadiums in an effort to appease young Saudis and provide spaces for fans eager to cheer on local clubs, as well as hold national parades and ceremonies.
In a one-off, the main stadium in Riyadh allowed families to enter and watch National Day festivities in September — marking the first time women had set foot inside the stadium.
A Saudi woman who tried to attend a soccer game in Jiddah in 2015 was arrested. Police were quoted in local media at the time as saying that security spotted her at the stadium "deliberately disguised" in pants, a long-sleeve top, a hat and sunglasses to avoid detection.
Over the years, though, there have been some exceptions for foreign women.
In 2015, an Australian female supporter of Western Sydney Wanderers soccer club was permitted to attend a match at Riyadh's main stadium and a group of American women traveling with members of U.S. Congress watched a local club match, also in Riyadh.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
This story has been corrected to show that Saudi National Day festivities were in September, not November.