Halah Alhamrani, Saudi MMA Federation board member and founder of Fight Like A Girl (FLAG) Boxing in Jeddah, discusses how sport is empowering women in Saudi Arabia. 

When the ban on women in Saudi Arabian sports stadiums was lifted in 2018, the story made international headlines as the Kingdom appeared to take a major step towards sporting and social equality.

In reality, it was a development that had been a long time coming; in various corners of Saudi Arabia, women had already been stamping their authority on sport.

Halah Alhamrani was first introduced to martial arts at the age of 12 and trained covertly in her spare time, receiving her black belt in jiu-jitsu through an American expat couple living in Saudi Arabia. Martial arts remained a fundamental part of her life during college years in America and when she returned to the Kingdom, she began to train girls at her parents’ house.

After being consigned to the shadows for many years, Alhamrani opened Fight Like A Girl (FLAG) Boxing in Jeddah in 2016 – determined to take female combat sports into the Saudi mainstream.

“What I saw from when I first started training women to now is that anyone who takes up martial arts or boxing goes through this change,” Alhamrani tells Sport Industry Insider. “You can see them discovering this mental empowerment. They see they are capable of something they perhaps didn’t think was possible and of course, they start coming back.”

It was not long before FLAG Boxing started attracting attention from international media and after widespread positive publicity, Alhamrani was invited to become the first female board member of the Saudi MMA Federation. It is a role she has understandably relished.

“I do feel that having that presence on the board made a major difference to females,” Alhamrani says. “Now women can compete both locally and abroad. I am always promoting and pushing for women to get into competition, to get opportunities.”

Zahra Al Qurashi, a FLAG fighter, made history in Jordan in March when she won gold for Saudi Arabia and returned home to a hero’s welcome. It was a major breakthrough as the achievement was celebrated across the Kingdom, including in the mainstream press. This was followed in April by Saudi Arabia’s first all-female kickboxing competition.

“These were two major breakthroughs. We had 21 fights at the tournament in Jeddah and though a group of Moroccans won gold, they had a lot more experience than our Saudi fighters. What is amazing is that many of the Saudi girls who signed up for the competition only started to learn kickboxing recently. It was their first time being exposed to competition.

“This to me is an incredible feat because you don’t know what to expect. It is extremely intimidating and a lot of them didn’t even have coaches in their corner. They were just women who wanted to compete, they are warriors. We hope that we can have more of these competitions – at least quarterly – going forward. We want them to be regular.”

A sporting shift is happening in Saudi Arabia and some of the key recent rulings in recent years – including the lifting of the infamous stadium ban – were propelled by Princess Reema bint Bandar.

The former vice president of women’s affairs at the General Sports Authority (GSA) and president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, Princess Reema recently became Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States – seen as a direct reward for her work improving sport at home, and enhancing the Kingdom’s reputation abroad.

“Princess Reema did an incredible job of elevating women’s sports in Saudi Arabia. We will all miss her very much.”

Alhamrani feels Princess Reema’s contributions to the sporting sphere were crucial and praised her role as a figurehead for women’s sports in Saudi Arabia.

“Princess Reema did an incredible job of elevating women’s sports,” Alhamrani says. “She was the driving factor. For example, the initial change that happened in terms of getting more women in sports – making licenses for gyms applicable and obtainable – was down to her. She was the first to push, at a government level, for the revamp of sports in the country and now we can see the change that happened, and that is still happening.

“I really wish her the best of luck – she is in an incredible position now. She did an amazing job and now of course she will be missed. We have a WhatsApp group for women in sport in Saudi Arabia and she was in it too. When she left, she exited the group and we were very sad about that. We will all miss her very much.”

Other members of that WhatsApp group include Rawan Zahran and Hala Dakhill founders of Sweat Army gym and HD Fitness respectively, as well as Madawi Al-Hassoun, one of the first Saudi women to run for political office.

“I admire all of these women,” Alhamrani says. “There is also Arwa Mutabagani, who opened the first equestrian club in Saudi Arabia. And Lina Almaeena, who has done fantastic work with girls playing basketball in the country thanks to her team Jeddah United.

With Princess Reema now departed, it is now up to Alhamrani and those other influential female sporting figures to continue driving change and fighting for the development of women’s sport in Saudi Arabia.