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Saudi Arabia not bragging about 2 female Olympians; silence hints move more show than substance, unlikely to help women athletes in kingdom

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By The Associated Press
Friday, July 13, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

CAIRO — Across the world, word that Saudi Arabia would send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time rocketed to the top of websites and broadcasts. In Saudi Arabia's official media: not even a hint.

The state-sponsored silent treatment was a lesson in the deep intricacies and sensitivities inside the kingdom as it took another measured step away from its ultra-conservative traditions.

While Saudi leaders found room to accommodate the demands of the International Olympic Committee to include female athletes, they clearly acknowledged that — in their view at least — this did not merit billing as a pivotal moment in a nation that bans women from driving or traveling without the approval of a male guardian.

“It does not change the fact that Saudi women are not free to move and to choose,” said political analyst Mona Abass in neighboring Bahrain. “The Saudis may use it to boost their image, but it changes little.”

The two athletes selected to compete under the Saudi flag — 800-meter runner Sarah Attar from Pepperdine University in California and judo competitor Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani — live outside the kingdom and carry almost no influence there as sports figures.

Ahmed al-Marzooqi, editor of a website that aims to cover women's and men's sporting events in Saudi Arabia, viewed the announcement on Thursday as mostly an attempt to quiet international pressure on the lone nation trying to stick with an all-male Olympic team.

The other former holdouts — Brunei and Qatar — have added female Olympic athletes, with Qatar planning to have a woman carry its flag in London.

“We are still disappointed here,” al-Marzooqi said from the Saudi city of Jiddah. “I should be happy for them, but this will do nothing for women who want to be in sports in Saudi Arabia.”

Still, the Saudi move is not without significance.

The decision must have received at least some nod from the nation's Islamic religious establishment, which holds de facto veto power over nearly all key moves by the Western-allied monarchy and gives the royal court its legitimacy to rule over a nation with Islam's holiest sites.

The inherent two-way tug — change-resistant clerics and leaders sensing reform pressures from the streets — has allowed enough slack for some slow-paced movement.

Saudi women activists have gotten behind the wheel to oppose the driving ban, and bloggers churn out manifestos about how the Arab Spring will one day hit Saudi shores.

“If Saudi does field women athletes, it is immensely interesting,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This flies against the traditions of having a woman not make a public display of herself or mixing with men. Now, the world could see women marching with men in the opening ceremony and — even more — women running in competition.”

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