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The story of Jeddah United: Turning a dream into a reality
JEDDAH (Saudi Arabia) - Jeddah United made history in Sharjah at the Arab Women's Sports Tournament in 2018. Though they may not have exactly ran through their competition at the event, it didn't matter. Jeddah United was the first women's local team under the Saudi Arabian Basketball Federation (SBF) to play in the competition, winning the tournament's sportsmanship award along the way.
It was a dream come true for Lina Khaled Almaeena, co-founder of the Jeddah United club.
"That was one of the first times that my dreams came true," Lina told FIBA.basketball. "For our club to be on TV and people were watching in a restaurant here, it was very popular."
Lina wrote about her dreams back in 1995 when she was a teen editor in chief of the Jeddah Girls Gazette.
"We dream of coming home, switching on the TV and watching our female players on a basketball court 'on the air' during a crucial game," she typed down as one of her six "Wild Female Dreams" as the article was titled.
She didn't know at the time that she would eventually make that specific dream come true over two decades later by founding Jeddah United.
Today, Jeddah United is an accredited sports academy with a class A certification in Saudi Arabia. The club has been promoting sports in women and youth as well as men for nearly 20 years.
"It has already established its national goals to build a strong generation morally and physically, investing its energy, time and effort to help the youth, and use the language of sport as a source of soft diplomacy," she also said, as per Eye of Riyadh.
"If you ask me how big [Jeddah United] is, I would say Jeddah United has incubated around ten academies and training groups, out of which nine are still in existence," Lina said in a separate chat with FIBA.basketball. "It has been an incubator for the past 17 years."
To understand why Jeddah United is a big deal, one has to have a better understanding of its beginning. Things were different back in the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia, and it's what pushed Lin to work towards establishing the club.
"…at the time between 2003 to 2006, entertainment was very limited in Saudi Arabia," she said as she explained what drove her to found the club. "There were no cinemas. There were no concerts. There were so many different aspects of international events that women couldn't attend. So obviously, [founding the club] was a holistic approach to psychological, physical, social networking and gathering together to have a good time."
So in 2003, she called her old buddies from school.
Lina attended a private school during her childhood, so basketball was a sport that was practiced, whereas public schools did not have such programs. She had always been inspired by basketball by her uncle, Tariq, who bought rims and placed them in her family's garage. She also played on her high school team, and it was her teammates that she was reaching out to on the phone in 2003 with an exciting idea.
Lina wanted to form a local basketball team.
"Regarding the conversation I had with my teammates, it was very exciting because it was the high school team which we had not played together in 4-5 years," Lina recalled. "It was very refreshing and exciting."
"When I called the members, there was no hesitation whatsoever. It was kind of like a beautiful flashback from the past, and there was a lot of energy and excitement for them to come.
The team used the family's court at her house and the Jaguars - they were not yet called Jeddah United - started training in March 2003.
Jeddah United always had high expectations, but as the same as any organization big or small, they started small. For three years up until 2006, the club was mostly just the team playing basketball. Lina said it was just out of passion and more of additional activity to enjoy. However, the growth of the club during those three years was large and rapid.
"More people wanted to join," Lina said. "Then I realized my time and energy [I was giving] for the team as a player, captain, co-founder, and management."
She realized that now she could transform this passion project into a career. She had put in so much time and energy into it, that she figured she might as well turn it into a business. At that time, there was no gym licensing or club licensing for women, but that didn't deter her aspirations. After getting advice from a lawyer and acquiring a license through the ministry of commerce, Jeddah United was legally established.
"From 2006, which was the transformation to a commercial entity, we have been working on three different fronts," Lina explained. "First of all, it is to locally promote the culture of sports and team sports for women and youth, specifically basketball, in Saudi Arabia.
"Also, at the international level, we have international trips to change the image and stereotype of Saudi Arabian women globally. We travel to many countries around the world with that objective."
"Now, also on a local level, we were very big on media because we thought it was very important to be able to raise awareness and encourage girls and the youth."
Lina mentions how she had a lot of debates and that there were a lot of TV and media interviews and reports when he talked about girls in sports.
"It was a taboo at the time, and I thought that was very important because it was important to have a healthy national debate through the media, whether it was print media or broadcast, TV or radio."
One key moment was when the Jeddah United women's team played in an international competition in Jordan back in 2009. Their participation had gained much interest from various media outlets from Reuters to the Arabiya channel and 4,000 other channels. The mass amount of attention was a huge turning point for Jeddah United, as this was even before the popularization of social media and pre-Saudi Vision 2030.
"I would definitely say the 2009 game in Jordan was huge because after that, we were all over the media in TV broadcasts like Arabiya, primetime news," Lina said. "before that, it was mostly self-censorship from local newspapers to publish anything in the Arabic print."
"You could find that we had the first women's street basketball tournament in 2006 - which I won. I was very happy winning that," she laughed. "Things were happening before , and we'll find it published in the English press in Saudi Arabia. But in terms of the local Arabic media, they were very conservative, and it didn't feel like they wanted the heat of publishing any news or PR in that regard.
"Obviously, when you look at it from an international perspective on how women's sports evolved around the world when you look at the Boston Marathon when women weren't able to participate and were pushed, that's the very normal evolution for women in sports in Saudi Arabia, especially since it is a young country."
The ball kept on rolling from there for Jeddah United and the women's basketball scene in Saudi Arabia.
In addition to what Jeddah United had building towards, "Saudi Vision 2030" was announced in April 2016. The national strategic framework empowered women in Saudi Arabia in every aspect - politically, economically, and socially. Driven by Vision 2030, Physical Education was integrated into girls' schools, women gym licenses were granted, and women were able to attend stadiums.
At the Abu Dhabi Special Olympics 2019 in March, the Saudi Arabia Unified basketball team went undefeated, winning the gold medal.
A few months later, six girls who played for Jeddah United and Riyadh United were nominated by the Saudi Arabian Basketball Federation (SBF) to form the first-ever women’s basketball national team. In October 2019, They competed at the sixth Gulf Cooperation Council in Kuwait.
Even the club name, Jeddah United, is a reference to their support to encourage women in sports, especially basketball. Aside from being a direct homage to the city of Jeddah, it refers to how the club has always supported the power of women.
"In Arabic, [Jeddah] means grandmother, in reference to Eve. It is known to be where Eve had descended and where Eve is buried today in old Jeddah," Lani explained, referring to the archeological site "Tomb of Eve" in Jeddah.
The "United" part of the name was added because the club always had international aspirations from the beginning. Lina says that they were looking to make an impact on the same level as those of DC United or Manchester United from around the world.
The proud and strong club co-founder remembers being inspired by famous Muslim basketball players like Hakeem Olajuwon. She remembers him having some of his biggest performances during the holy month of Ramadan. She remembers meeting Olajuwon as a part of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at the University of New Mexico, where he presented a speech and held a fundraiser.
"I thought about these types of world basketball leaders who were doing good for the society and not just in the societies they were from, but also on a global level. I thought that was really powerful."
Now, Lina, along with Jeddah United, is working towards doing good for the society themselves as much as they can as well. The club has continuously pushed forward the women's basketball scene not only in Saudi Arabia but in the Gulf as well.
"Women's sports are a positive force and should be an integral part of every young woman's life," Lina said as per CGTN.
Jeddah United are already in charge of the sports programs in a lot of universities and schools. One of the club's objectives is to be a member under the Saudi Arabian league, too.
What started as just a passionate extra time activity has now morphed into something that could potentially inspire women and youth all over the world. Jeddah United has helped Lina realize one of her dreams, and hopefully, it will somehow help others realize their own dreams in the future.