Saudi Arabia reluctantly agrees to allow female athletes to compete in the Olympics, but the only female candidate, show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, did not qualify

Saudi Arabia will not have female representation at the London 2012 Olympics after all. The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) blocked Saudi show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas from competing this summer, for not being qualified.

Malhas is an American-born, London-educated multi-millionaire’s daughter, and the million-dollar horse was bought from Sweden to advance her Olympic prospects. Although the riding helmet is a good substitute for the hijab, not sure what the Saudi clerics thought of the tight white breeches the riders are required to wear.

UK Telegraph  The Saudi Olympic Committee announced on Sunday that they were open to women competing at a Games for the first time, following pressure from the country’s ruler King Abdullah. Mulhas had been suggested as a likely participant but the FEI confirmed last night that she did not meet the minimum competence standard to tackle the Olympic course.

In a statement, FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos said: “Regretfully the Saudi Arabian rider Dalma Mulhas Malhas has not attained the minimum eligibility standards and consequently will not be competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games.”

Mulhas bought a new horse, Caramell KS, in December for a possible bid to qualify for the Games, but has jumped just one clear round in seven attempts at the minimum three-star qualifying level this spring.

The Saudi announcement that it will sanction female athletes came after the June 17 deadline set by the FEI, by which riders had to achieve a minimum competence. When addressing the recent IOC Women and Sport conference in Los Angeles, Mulhas herself stated she was not yet riding at the required standard.

The 20 year-old, whose family live in France, took part in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, in the individual show jumping event. She was directly invited and not formally nominated by the Saudi Federation. She won the individual bronze medal over courses that are significantly smaller than will be encountered at London 2012 and against moderate competition – strong equestrian nations from Europe were largely absent.

Intl Herald Tribune Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to compete at the Olympics for the first time is being greeted with more cynicism than celebration.

The Kingdom’s small step in the direction of gender equality may therefore turn out to be nothing more than a symbolic and empty gesture. “They’re only doing it so they don’t get banned from the Olympics,” wrote Barry Petchesky at the Deadspin sports site. “This is progress, but it is not much progress.”

“It is only right that the Saudi government should play by the Olympic rules,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But an eleventh hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”

The International Olympic Committee had been under pressure to prevent the Saudis from participating in the Games if they failed to lift a ban on women athletes that was in violation of the I.O.C.’s anti-discrimination statutes.

As late as April, the president of Saudi Arabian National Olympic Committee, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, stated that he did not “endorse female participation of Saudi Arabia at the present time in the Olympics.” 

That appeared to echo the prevailing view among Saudi Arabia’s religious conservatives, such as the Grand Mufti, Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh, who declared: “Women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.”

Riyadh’s last-minute reversal appeared to let the I.O.C. off the hook “by allowing the fiction that in some way the Saudis are allowing women generally to compete for a place in the Olympics,” said Jon Snow, the presenter of Britain’s Channel 4 News.

According to Barry Petchesky at Deadspin: “It’s a victory for tokenism, and doing the bare minimum to satisfy a toothless I.O.C.” He and other commentators noted that Ms. Rushdi Malhas had the good fortune to have been born in Ohio and to live and train in Europe where she did not suffer the domestic constraints on would-be women athletes.