Maha Haddioui speaks to Harriet Shephard as she prepares to compete in Saudi Arabia.
To any of us, the idea that Saudi Arabia is embracing women’s golf and hosting not one, but two golf tournaments, is absolutely astonishing.
But for 32-year-old Maha Haddioui, the Saudi Ladies International holds extra significance.
Used to challenging expectations, leading the way and inspiring others, the Morroocan star is the first Arabic woman to ever qualify to play on the Ladies European Tour.
And this week, she’s making history again by competing in the first professional women’s golf event in Saudi Arabia.
The 'new' Saudi
Catching up with her the day before her first round at Royal Greens, Maha was smiling from ear to ear and looked totally at ease.
“I’m so happy and proud to be here as the only Arabic player on the LET, to be able to represent Morocco and the MENA region actually in my region, too," she said.
“It’s a huge moment for the Tour, for women’s golf and for women in Saudi. I’m thrilled that Saudi is making this big step forward, it’s a massive statement and a big moment in history.”
She’s keen to stress that this ‘new Saudi’ isn’t anything like the super conservative one that we often hear about.
“Just to be part of something this huge is incredible. Obviously, I’m always happy to travel and play in new places but this one holds a bigger meaning to me,” she said.
“Saudi is opening itself up in all sorts of ways, to women and to golf, and I think it’s about time the rest of the world saw the new Saudi too.”
Eloquent, friendly and confident, she’s been to the Kingdom several times before, both as a tourist and through her career.
“I’ve visited Saudi about four times now. The first time was with my mum when we had the honour of going to Mecca and doing the pilgrimage. That was an amazing experience. I was also here two years ago to run clinics for women at the first men’s event in Saudi. Now being back here for a women’s tournament - almost the biggest one we’ve had all year as well - is unbelievable. It's hard to describe how much it means.”
Turning pro in 2012, Maha is yet to get her first LET win.
“Winning anywhere would be special but it would be really amazing to get my first win here," she said wistfully.
"It would mean a lot more as Saudi its somewhere I feel at home. As an Arab country, I feel really welcome here.”
A big step forward
In the lead up to these events, I’ve been doing a lot of reading into why the collaboration with the LET has divided opinions so dramatically.
Some of the players have even refused to attend on moral grounds and Maha agrees that you can choose to view the situation in two different ways.
“To me, these events are definitely a positive development. Really, you will find flaws in any country if you choose to look for them. But normally once a country or a person starts making small steps to improve they carry on that way, and I think that’s what will happen in Saudi, one step at a time. It’s about whether you look at it as a glass half full or empty; to me it’s definitely half full.”
The two events offer one of the biggest prize funds of the year and, especially because so much of the schedule was scrapped due to the pandemic, this has been a massive boost for the players.
The country is also investing heavily in grassroots level golf.
This week Golf Saudi launched the ‘Ladies First Club’, a scheme offering free golf memberships to women across the country. It’s initially available to 1,000 women, and before 2025 the governing body also aims to introduce over 100,000 school children to golf.
It all sounds absolutely incredible and if similar schemes were introduced in the UK, we’d be over the moon.
“A lot of women in Saudi will be able to take up golf for free now,” she added.
"The way they are making golf more available to women and kids is brilliant, that’s how you start to grow the game. Golf will help the women here grow as people, and also for the country to grow and develop its tourism.
“I’m so grateful that I was able to take up the game when I was younger, it has completely changed my life. I’m travelling the world and doing what I love, nothing could be better.
“I wish that every woman in the Arab world could have the kinds of opportunities that I’ve had.”
I was also curious to know how she got into the game, and why until recently few other women from her region have been able to.
“I think for Arab women the hardest thing to overcome is the mentality that being a golfer just isn’t a ‘proper’ job. After I went to study and play golf in the USA a lot of people asked me when I would get a ‘serious’ career. It’s about making people understand that being successful doesn’t mean you have to become a doctor. For me, having people doubt me was the hardest obstacle.
“If people start to view being an athlete as a good career then I think there will be a lot more Arab athletes in all sports.
“I was lucky in that I was able to go the Lalla Meryem cup in Morrocco when I was growing up. I always looked up to the players and I think it’s really important for young girls to be able to come and see us play. That way they can see that we’re human and that being a professional golfer is something they can do too.”
However, I found it mind blowing that Maha didn’t have the chance to play with any other women until she went to college.
“I didn’t have any women to compete with in Morocco, I was used to playing against men,” she explained.
“But I think that helped improve my game as I was often playing off the same tees as them. So, when I got to take part in college tournaments in the USA it wasn’t exactly easier, but it meant I was already used to playing at that level.”
The best kind of role model
Proving that things are starting to change in her region, she now hears from lots of young Arab girls who are wanting to follow in her footsteps.
“Girls reach out to me all the time for advice and it makes me so excited. I think in a few years we’ll see a lot more coming through onto the Tour. Even this week there’s an amateur from Morocco playing and I think this is the first time I’ve played abroad and not been the only Moroccan in the field.”
However, she’s very dismissive of the idea that being the world’s first Arab female pro golfer somehow makes her special.
“I don’t think of it like that,” she said modestly.
“I’m just going for my dreams and my goals. Sometimes it is hard being the only one doing something, but if I can inspire others to aspire to a life like mine then that’s the best thing I could ask for.”
We’re certainly wishing her the best of luck this week in this absolutely extraordinary fortnight of women’s golf.
She’s exactly the kind of role model the region needs and we can’t wait to witness all the talented Arab girls that follow in her footsteps.