Saudi Woman Who Attended Historic Soccer Match: 'No Words Can Describe How Amazing It Was'

Sarah Algashgari at the first soccer match in Saudi history that admitted female spectators. Sarah Algashgari

As soccer players from the Al Ahli and Al Batin clubs stepped onto the pitch at the King Abdullah Sports City stadium in the Red Sea city of Jeddah last Friday, history was made. It was the first match that women had been allowed to watch inside a stadium in the Gulf Kingdom.

For Sarah Algashgari, an 18-year-old student who was there and even helped organize the match, it was an "amazing" spectacle that demonstrated the progress of the Saudi ruling elite.

"It was surreal," she tells Newsweek. "No words can ever describe how amazing it was to be part of the success of this historic event."

Algashgari, herself an Al Ahli fan, says the decision to allow women into football stadiums for the first time, announced in October, allowed her to fulfill a lifelong dream of watching the sport she has always loved.

"I have been [a fan] ever since I was a child. I love playing and watching; that is why it has been amazing to see something I only used to see behind a screen!"

To top it all, Algashgari's team Al Ahli won the game 5-0 against Al Batin, staying second in the league table.

The first-year student at Jeddah's King Abdulaziz University joined organizers of the event to help ensure everything went smoothly. She wanted to "contribute in whatever way" she could and saw the historic match as the "perfect opportunity."

Arriving six hours before the game, Algashgari helped steward spectators arriving to watch the match. Women came draped in green scarves and waving the flag of Al Ahli, taking their seats in designated family areas.

The stadium was prepared for the Saudi Pro League match with separate prayer rooms and cafés. "The general sports authority has provided everything that would create an attractive sports environment for families and provide everything needed to ensure their privacy," the country's sports governing body said in a statement.

As with other forms of public entertainment in Saudi Arabia, men and women were separated. But women could watch the game unaccompanied by men in what was a relaxation of gender separation rules in the country.

This is all part of the modernization project orchestrated by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the youthful second-in-line to the throne of his 81-year-old father, King Salman. His Vision 2030 project aims to appease the frustrations of Saudi Arabia's population, over half of which are under 25 years old. Its stated aim is to procure social and economic change while diversifying the country's economy away from oil.

The Saudi ruling elite fears an onset of the unrest seen across the Middle East since 2011, which has brought down dictators and rattled authoritarian regimes.

But there is no sign of public dissent from Algashgari.

"The king and crown prince are the reason we live in prosperity and safety. We are forever thankful for the luxuries Saudi Arabia provides," she says.

And for the young student and other women in the Gulf Kingdom, while there is a long way to go in terms of gender equality, life is suddenly looking that little bit better.

"I am very proud. It shows how Saudi Arabia is stepping in the right direction to emphasize the role of Saudi women, not only in sports, but all aspects of life," she concludes. "The future looks promising."