By Julian Linden
INCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - Asia's top Olympic official is unsure why Saudi Arabia excluded women from their team for the Asian Games and says he thought the Islamic kingdom had "broken the ice" when they picked female competitors for the London Olympics.
Saudi Arabia is the only country among the 45 competing nations at the Asian Games, which start in South Korea on Friday under the slogan "Diversity Shines Here", to have selected an all-male team.
Their decision has drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch but Saudi officials have defended their stance, saying their female athletes were not "competitive" enough for the Asian Games, a multi-sports event held every four years.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) that organizes the Asian Games, said there were no rules forcing countries to pick females but he was surprised Saudi Arabia had not chosen any after being widely applauded for including women at the last Olympics.
"Saudi Arabia broke through the ice when they participated at the London Olympics with a female," he told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
"It showed they are ready, they are capable to have women participate.
"I don't know why they are not participating here, maybe for technical reasons."
Saudi team officials said they recently discussed the matter with the International Olympic Council (IOC) and had promised to include women in their team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But Human Rights Watch, which campaigned heavily for Saudi Arabia to include women in London in 2012, said the decision to exclude females from the Asian Games raised doubts about whether the ultra-conservative state was serious about change.
“Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over – Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“Refusing to send women to the Asian Games casts doubts on Saudi Arabia’s commitment to end discrimination and allow Saudi women to participate in future competitions."
Despite their criticism over Saudi Arabia's stance at the Asian Games, Human Rights Watch said the world's top oil exporter had made some small but positive steps in recent years.
A year ago King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the 150-member Shoura Council. Last year, Saudi Arabia officially lifted a ban on sports in private girls' schools - a groundbreaking rule for a state where women are banned from driving and need formal permission from male relatives to leave the country, start a job or open a bank account.
Saudi Arabia's appointed Shoura Council, which advises the government on policy, also asked the education ministry to look into including sports for girls in state-run schools with the proviso they should conform to sharia rules on dress and gender segregation.
But the country's cautious social reforms to improve women's rights have also been met with resistance from religious conservatives, who fear the kingdom is losing its Islamic values in favor of Western ideas.
“Women’s sports have a long way to go in Saudi Arabia,” Whitson said.
“Now is the time for Saudi Arabia’s sports officials to lay down concrete plans for female sports in girls’ schools, women’s sports clubs, and competitive tournaments, both at home and abroad.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)