Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington on Tuesday said she was disappointed by recent criticism from tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova about Saudi money flowing into the sport.
The retired players, winners of 18 Grand Slam singles titles each, wrote an opinion column in The Washington Post last week saying the Women’s Tennis Association should back away from talks about staging the WTA Finals in the Gulf kingdom.
They based their position on “the unequal status of women (which) remains deeply embedded in Saudi law” and other human rights concerns, including the criminalisation of LGBTQ people.
In a response posted on social media, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador, said the article had “pained me deeply” and overlooked recent advances for women in Saudi Arabia.
Navratilova and Evert “have turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing”, Princess Reema wrote.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who became first in line to the throne in 2017, Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving has been lifted, as have rules requiring gender segregation in public and the wearing of abaya robes.
Princess Reema wrote that women “own more than 300,000 businesses, and roughly 25 percent of small and mid-size start-up companies”, which she said was comparable to the US.
But some human rights campaigners cast doubt on how deep the reforms run, stressing that women have been ensnared by a broader campaign of arrests targeting government critics.
A long-awaited personal status law, billed by Riyadh as “progressive”, has been criticised for containing what Human Rights Watch described as “discriminatory provisions against women concerning marriage, divorce, and decisions about their children”.
Sport is a major component of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 economic and social reform agenda.
While the push has been denounced as a bid to distract from human rights abuses, Princess Reema on Tuesday said it was “part of a comprehensive programme to be the best version of ourselves”.
“It is not about you. It is about us,” she wrote.
Last year, the kingdom hosted its first ATP Tour event — the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah — along with exhibition matches pitting Novak Djokovic against Carlos Alcaraz and Aryna Sabalenka against Ons Jabeur.
Earlier this month Rafael Nadal, winner of 22 singles Grand Slams on the men’s side, was named ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation.
The world’s biggest oil exporter has also spent huge sums luring star footballers and is due to hold the 2034 World Cup. It already hosts F1 and heavyweight boxing, and is in talks to take a prominent role in world golf.
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