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New era for Saudi: Women free to watch football

Saudi Arabia is undergoing the most unprecedented changes in its history.

Sky News was among the first foreign news media to film one major change being implemented: women being allowed to go to football matches.

“It means that I am human,” secondary school teacher Nora told Sky News at a Riyadh derby game.

“No other can prevent me from doing what I want.

“No other decide what I want. I am the one who decide.”

Many things we take for granted have long been banned in Saudi Arabia.

In its ultra conservative society simply letting women watch football is a groundbreaking change, one of many being promised.

Among them is the freedom for women to drive.

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Video:Saudi activist: Change is coming

Madeha al Ajroush has been jailed in the past for driving a car in protest.

She has spent much of her life campaigning for women to have the right to do so legally.

That dream becomes a reality in June.

Madeha told Sky News she will have mixed emotions.

“I will be ecstatic, I will be happy. I will be sad for all the years that passed in my life that I wasn’t able to do such basic elementary step of mobility.

“At 18 women usually automatically get behind the wheel and drive and do their errands. I had to wait until I was 63. That saddens me they took away a lot from my life.”

For all their lives, women have lived with the fear of the religious police who could punish even the slightest infraction of a strict moral code.

Activist Mediha al Ajroush will be allowed to drive for the first time in June
Image:Activist Madeha al Ajroush will be allowed to drive for the first time in June

They have now, for the most part, melted away and women like Madeha can feel safe for the first time out on the streets.

“As a woman, the streets were never safe to me. I was always exposed to the religious police.

“If they dont like the way I dress or the colour of my clothes or even my nail polish they have the power to say something.

“And Vision 2030 took that power away from them.

“Now I walk down the street, down the malls, and I feel much safer and the public have not harassed me.”

Vision 2030 is the programme of social and economic reform announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to and power behind the throne.

It aims to wean the Saudi economy off its dependence on oil and diversify.

Part of that vision is liberating women in public and in the workplace.

A Saudi woman watching a football match
Image:Saudi Arabia’s attitude to women’s rights is changing

With 70% of society under the age of 30, the government knows much of the country is impatient for social change.

A multibillion dollar programme of reform aims to give people more freedom and entertainment.

Cinemas, banned for decades, will soon open. More concerts are planned, even an opera house.

Critics say the reforms do not go far enough.

This remains an absolute monarch that tolerates no dissent.

There are no plans to make it more democratic.

It locks up dissidents, human rights activists and journalists.

It is one of the countries that executes the highest number of people, mainly by beheading.

But the changes are hugely significant, all the same, not least because of how little this country has altered since its inception.

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But also because of the expectations it has raised.

The question now is how much further they will go and how fast this ultra conservative society is able to change.

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