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Saudi could get first Miss Universe contestant this year

Update : 26 Apr 2024, 18:14

The Miss Universe Organization "is currently undergoing a rigorous vetting process qualifying a potential candidate to be awarded the Saudi Arabia franchise", Maria Jose Unda, the organisation's coordinator of international relations, said in a statement to AFP.

"We'll have a decision on the National Director for Saudi Arabia very, very soon," she said, noting it was "possible" for Saudi Arabia to have a contestant in place before the next edition of the competition, scheduled for September in Mexico.

The statement came after Saudi model Rumy al-Qahtani created a buzz online in late March when she posted to her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers that she was "honoured" to represent Saudi Arabia at Miss Universe at the upcoming event.

The post included pictures of Qahtani, a 27-year-old native of Riyadh, in a sequined dress holding the green Saudi flag inscribed with the shahada, or Islamic creed.

Less than a week later, Miss Universe issued a statement referring to Qahtani's post as "false and misleading" and saying no selection process had been carried out in the Gulf kingdom.

Fielding a Miss Universe candidate, if it happens, would mark another step in Saudi Arabia's effort to soften its ultra-conservative image as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, tries to lure tourists and investors.

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude oil exporter, has long been associated with the repression of women because of former rules such as a ban on driving and a requirement to wear abaya robes.

While those restrictions have been lifted, human rights activists say a personal status law that took effect in 2022 still discriminates against women when it comes to matters concerning marriage, divorce and child-rearing.

And women, including prominent activists, have been rounded up in a wide-reaching campaign against dissent.

Among them are two women who in 2022 received decades-long prison sentences for social media posts critical of the government.

'Negative comments'
Speaking at the Riyadh home she shares with her mother and three sisters, Qahtani maintained she was in "negotiations" about participation in Miss Universe but declined to provide further details.

"I have been contacted from the Miss Universe committee to represent Saudi Arabia. Negotiations started but it was during the month of Ramadan and I wasn't able to respond," she told AFP in her first interview since her March Instagram post went viral.

"We are still negotiating, and hopefully it will result in a happy ending."

Maria Jose Unda, the Miss Universe official, said the procedure calls for a national director to hold a Miss Universe Saudi Arabia pageant to choose a delegate to send to Mexico.

"We ignore the reason why (Qahtani) announced her candidacy, but if she wants to participate in the Saudi Arabia pageant, she will have to go through the same selection process as every other candidate," she said.

Qahtani told AFP she had previously participated in various pageants in the Middle East and Europe and posed with several sashes she said she obtained at the competitions.

She described fielding a host of unexpected questions about Saudi Arabia during her bid to take the beauty pageant world by storm, including one from a fellow contestant in Europe who wanted to know if she kept barrels of crude oil stored in her house.

All the while she has tried to manage the potential backlash back home, including from more conservative Saudis who object to her clothing or her decision to pose on Instagram last year wrapped in the Saudi flag.

"There were some negative comments about the way I dress and when I pictured myself with the flag wearing what people considered immodest clothing," she said.

She added, though, that she had no regrets.

"Many sports supporters picture themselves with the flag the same way I did," she said.

"In beauty pageants also, each girl carries her own country's flag, so I didn't mean anything offensive at all."

Fawzia Ayed, Rumy's mother, told AFP that she hoped her daughter would persevere despite the criticism.

"I always tell her to carry on, and that she has come a long way for a Saudi girl. Before, (society) was closed and strict," she said.

"Rumy has encouraged a lot of girls. I see that many contact her and ask her how she has reached this level, and that they would like also to participate."

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