As recently as April, a Saudi newspaper quoted the head of the Saudi Olympic Committee as saying he did not approve of sending women to the Olympics — suggesting instead they could compete on their own under a neutral flag.
A similar arrangement was made at the Youth Olympics in 2010 for Saudi equestrian competitor Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping.
"Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch "But without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities."
For the wider Muslim world region, the Saudi decision also is unlikely to have a transformative sweep since the kingdom trailed behind even Afghanistan in opening to women sports.
Increasing numbers are taking part in regional sports competition and there are few sports Muslim women aren't represented in — with Afghanis boxing, Pakistanis playing cricket and Emiratis in the Arabian Gulf taking up football and weightlifting. Iran, too, is considered one of the growing powers in women rugby in Asia.
But most experts acknowledged this progress is fragile and vulnerable to age-old cultural pressures.
Weightlifters in the United Arab Emirates have been attacked on social media and the Kuwaiti soccer team was denounced several years ago on its return from a tournament by conservative lawmakers who want a ban on all international competitions. In Iraq, a women's wrestling club disbanded in 2009 after receiving death threats from religious groups.
Muslim women also face hurdles from the West as well. While rugby, volleyball and taekwondo federations allow head scarves, the football federation FIFA waited until this month to lift a ban — standing by rules designed for safety but seen by Muslims as discriminatory.
"This is a first small step," said Raija Mattila, co-chairman of the Finland-based International Working Group on Women and Sport. "It's good for the international stage, but we hope that it opens up sports opportunities for women and girls inside Saudi Arabia. So this is just a small first step."
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in London, Sports Writer Michael Casey in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain contributed to this report.
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