Middle EastWorld

Saudi Arabia hosts first marathon for women as gaming lovers square off

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia hosted its first marathon for women at the weekend, local media said, as the conservative kingdom seeks to boost female sports in a far-reaching modernization drive. Hundreds of women runners, many of them dressed in traditional Islamic attire, raced in eastern Al-Ahsa region on Saturday. “The aim of the marathon is to promote running and introduce the concept of sports for all, for a healthier way of life,” Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News quoted the marathon’s supervisor, Malek Al-Mousa, as saying.

The event came after Riyadh hosted its first international half-marathon in late February, which prompted complaints from some Saudis on social media about the notable absence of women. Sports authorities are set to organize another marathon for women in the holy city of Makkah on April 6, pro-government Okaz newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Saudi men and women squared off in a video game tournament in Riyadh at the weekend, organizers said, in the kingdom’s biggest ever eSports contest. The eSports tournament – in which players face off on computers instead of turf – was held in the capital from Thursday through Saturday. Organizers said they were flooded with 30,000 registrations for over a little more than 1,300 spots in the competition, highlighting the growing gaming community in the kingdom.

Saudi teenagers were among the winners, taking home cash prizes of up to 10,000 riyals ($2,667), organizers said. “eSports is open to everyone, the ultimate equalizer, male or female, big or small, anyone can step up to the challenge, anyone can win,” said Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al-Saud, president of the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sport. “We have great untapped talent in Saudi… This (is) just the beginning.”

The tournament is part of a modernization drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment and sporting options. Sports simulation video games are hugely popular in a country of more than 30 million people, the majority of whom are under 25. eSports are to be included as a medal sport for the first time at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou and proponents are pushing for Olympic status.

Long known for its ultraconservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging program of social reforms that includes allowing women to drive from June. The kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority last month said it will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector over the coming decade. But some Saudis have complained on social media of what they called wasteful spending as the kingdom reels from slumping oil revenues, high inflation and unemployment. – AFP

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