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Saudi Arabia plans to promote more sports clubs and exercise

Saudi Arabia’s government approved plans on Monday to turn state-owned sports clubs into private companies, part of a drive to promote physical exercise in a society that mostly avoids it.

The cabinet endorsed the privatisation of state-owned soccer clubs in the Saudi Professional League and directed the General Sports Authority to facilitate licensing and legal procedures, it said in a statement carried on the state news agency SPA.

Last week, the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) directed the sports authority to launch a fund to provide loans and other support for private sport clubs in the kingdom. It said the fund would create 40,000 jobs.

These measures fit into wide-ranging reform plans led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil, cultivate better leisure offerings and encourage Saudis to lead healthier lifestyles.

The statements did not say whether the reforms would pave the way for more women’s sport, which is now quite rare. This is a sensitive subject in a country that enforces strict gender segregation and generally does not teach physical fitness in girls’ schools.

The General Sports Authority created a new women’s division this summer and tapped a U.S.-raised princess to run it, aiming to license women’s gyms for the first time and modify outdoor spaces to allow women to work out without being seen by men.

But the plans could run afoul of the kingdom’s Islamic conservatives, many of whom consider women’s sport immodest.

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