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The Saudi game changers

Fatima Batook and Rasha Bubshait were instrumental in changing the laws in Saudi Arabia, empowering and enabling women to exercise, improve their health and change their lives. They tell Kate Cracknell the story behind Studio55.
Published 27. September 2023

How did you come to work together?

RB: As a university student, I lacked a real sense of purpose in life and decided to run for student president. I never expected to win, but I did, and as part of the duties I attended a seminar where Fatima was guest speaker. Her words were captivating. There and then, I said to myself: ‘One day, I’m going to work with Fatima.’ From that moment on, I followed her – I pretty much stalked her! – and my determination paid off. Within a year, we were working together.

FB: She was very persistent, coming to the gym and the classes I was teaching. This was in 2012, when women weren’t really allowed to go to gyms and there were no proper female gym permits. There was just an underground scene, with people running women’s gyms in learning centres, computer centres and so on. They’d operate under the banner of ‘beauty’, which there were permits for, and I’d teach classes.

“In 2012, there was just an underground scene, with people running women’s gyms in learning centres, computer centres and so on”

When I met Rasha, I’d just started my Tima Love Life apparel brand and Rasha was offering to help for free. She was soon helping with sales and design, then became full-time brand manager. She’s now CEO of our fitness studio brand, Studio55.

closeup of woman spinning with beach in background
Batook says Spinning taught her so much about how to overcome personal challenges

Tell us more about Tima.

FB: I have to rewind to explain how it came about. I had become very vocal about the situation in Saudi Arabia. I used Twitter as my platform, talking about how important fitness was for women – how it helped them feel better about themselves and how vital it was to addressing obesity levels, which were far higher among women than men. Women simply didn’t have the freedom to move outdoors in the way men did.

I knew all this from my own journey. When I first discovered Spinning™, I was obese. I went to a facility where Spinning was the only option and managed just 10 minutes. It was too hard and honestly, I found the concept of cycling a bike that went nowhere a bit crazy.

However, I soon realised it was a mental challenge I needed to overcome, and that if I overcame it, I would overcome it in all other parts of my life too. Spinning gave me that epiphany. It wasn’t about weight loss any more. It was about understanding myself and how to stay consistent – pedal stroke after pedal stroke – and it taught me so much about how to overcome personal challenges. I fell in love with it and wanted everyone else to experience it too.

So, I really championed fitness for women, but what surprised me was the negative feedback I got from other women. I’m not fully Saudi – my mother is Tibetan – and I was educated overseas, and I was accused of trying to corrupt young Saudi girls with my ideas. The whole system was so deeply engrained… even my family asked me to tone it down.

“We built a case to get legislation approved for women’s gyms. I expected ‘we’ll discuss it’ but straight away it was a ‘yes’”

I was ready to give up, so my friends came round to cheer me up. They were talking about cheering me on wearing Tima T-shirts – Tima is what my mother calls me, an abbreviation of Fatima. And at the mention of T-shirts, something clicked. If there’s one thing Saudi women love, it’s clothing and fashion, but at the time there was nothing in the sports apparel market that really fitted their bodies, which weren’t as active then.

I realised this was my way to connect with and speak to women. I’d just done a Piloxing course and the amazing female founder introduced me to her apparel lady in Brazil, who connected me with another lady whose factory taught women from broken homes to tailor. I always find businesses run by women have more of a mission behind them! I knew I’d found my supplier, and we launched our first apparel line in 2013.

Batook was given permission to open a women’s fitness studio and told Bubshait: ‘OK, I think we have to do this now.’

What happened next?

FB: Rasha was managing Tima and I had a full-time job, doing everything else on the side. And then suddenly all the underground gyms were closed down.

I was approached by the Young Saudi Business Women of Eastern Province Association to reach out to the Minister of Sports. We set about building a case to get legislation approved for women’s gyms and fitness facilities. We presented him with the facts and the numbers and showed there was a market – and, indeed, a real need – for it, and he said ‘yes, do it’.

I had expected the response to be more along the lines of ‘we’ll discuss it’, but straight away it was a ‘yes’. I asked him why, and why it hadn’t been done sooner – why licences had been granted for men’s gyms, but not women’s – and he told me: ‘Because nobody asked.’

So then it was over to me. He gave me a licence to make a start while government figured out the full legislation. I came back to Rasha and said: ‘OK, I think we have to do this now.’ So I quit my full-time job and we began to work on our studio concept.

And you launched Studio55…

FB: We launched our first studio, Studio55, in the city of Al Khobar in 2015. Although we had our licence from the Minister, the municipality still wanted to challenge us, so we opened in a hotel that had a licence for a female gym.

RB: The space was tiny, just under 200sq m, into which we fitted two studios – one for yoga and strength and one for Spinning. It was challenging, but it was packed full of energy. Studio55 became a place to connect with other women of all ages, share ideas, learn about fitness, take part in outings and hikes, retreats and charity events. It became a safe place for women to share and bond and grow, and even become instructors themselves.

“I asked why it hadn’t been done sooner – why licences had been granted for men’s gyms, but not women’s – and he told me: ‘Because nobody asked’.”

FB: We were adamant that we would have home-grown instructors, taking our team overseas and bringing in international trainers for education every year.

Studio55 launched in 2015, in a hotel that had a licence for a female gym

RB: Back then, it wasn’t the norm to have female Saudi instructors. At the beginning, one of our instructors didn’t even want anyone outside the studio to know she was doing it. She felt it was somehow shameful, a profession for expats, not Saudis. Now everyone is doing it. I feel as though we created a new movement.

“Studio55 became a hub of what indoor cycling had enabled in me: self-realisation and the chance for women to understand their own potential”

FB: Traditionally, women have followed the set path of high school, graduation, nice safe job, marriage, children. Today, that doesn’t have to be the case. Women can take a stand and follow their passion. Rasha is a perfect example, as is one of our instructors who became a professional boxer – and whose father now finally supports her decision.

Studio55 became a hub of what indoor cycling had enabled in me: self-realisation and the chance for women to understand their own potential. In Saudi culture, women have clearly defined roles in the family: daughter, sister, mother, aunt. Taking an hour for themselves is so empowering. The whole studio… it’s brought about a positive snowball effect of empowerment.

four girls arm in arm in front of the sea
Studio55 is a place to connect with other women of all ages – a place to share and bond and grow

Is cycling a big part of Studio55?

FB: It’s the core of what we do, what we stand for and why people come to us and are referred to us. We deliver it in a very different, very thoughtful way and people get hooked on it as an experience they can’t get anywhere else.

RB: All our classes are delivered at a very emotional level. There are physical benefits, of course, but our USP is the emotional layer – the way we feed the soul. Ride55 brings the outdoors indoors, although our approach is as much meditative and mental as it is physical. Rhythm55 is faster and more choreographed, pushing your heart rate up.

We do offer other classes, as well as personal training and EMS. We have Fusion55 classes, which combine Spinning with off-the-bike exercise. We have Fitness55, under which sit classes such as functional training, strength, yoga, stretching and so on. All have our unique Studio55 style, whereby a member can get the same experience in any of our studios. But indoor cycling is why people first come to us.

studio 55 owners in front of their sign
Studio55 has brought about a positive snowball effect of female empowerment, say its founders

FB: I have to give thanks to Barbara Chancey, who I met at a conference many years ago. She helped us create an experience that’s unlike anything else in Saudi, although we’re happy to share what we now know. Barbara understood what would work for us and helped us formulate our customer experience from pre-entry to exit. She introduced us to suppliers, to other studio owners around the world, to a booking system so members can book a specific bike and it’s set up for them before they arrive. She’s our go-to.

What’s happened since you launched?

FB: From 2015 to 2017 it was still a struggle, because even though we had a licence, the municipality wanted to close us down. Then in 2017, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud – now Saudi ambassador to the US – was brought in to the Ministry of Sport to set up a female division. She began scouting for other women who could help, and approached us.

It was challenging. I remember going to one meeting with the Ministry of Education about mandating PE in girls’ schools, and the argument put back to us was a concern that girls would have to wear pants. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But the Princess is an incredible woman and we learned so much about how to speak to those who really didn’t understand why women should be allowed to exercise.

Indoor bike closeup
When COVID closed the studio, bikes were sent to members’ homes that same day

By 2019, our Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud had made some really big changes, including removing people from ministerial roles who weren’t aligned with his Vision 2030 [a Saudi government programme that aims to create a vibrant and more diverse society economically, socially and culturally].

In the space of a few years, we moved from ‘girls shouldn’t wear pants’ to ‘girls should compete in the Olympics’. Women are now doing executive programmes and leading businesses. It’s impressive to see how rapidly and dramatically Saudi Arabia has changed in such a short period.

RB: From a Studio55 perspective, in early 2020 we relocated to a larger site in Al Khobar, finally with a legitimate licence. We were due to have our grand opening on 8 March. Then COVID hit and we were forced to close on 1 March.

We acted quickly. Our members had already told us Studio55 was like a home for them – a place they couldn’t imagine their lives without – so we went online that same day and sent bikes to our members’ homes. And of course, going online also meant we reached women across the country. We had messages from women in small villages telling us they could feel our energy through the screen and loved what we were doing.

And now?

FB: We had opened a second studio in Jeddah before COVID, but that’s now closed. We had to cut our losses during the pandemic. However, we still have our studio in Al Khobar and are opening in Riyadh by the end of 2023. In this new location, we’re also looking to experiment further with our fusion formats, formalising a class structure that brings together strength and CV in an interesting way.

“Maybe one day we’ll expand beyond Saudi. It feels like other countries might also benefit from what we do: female empowerment for women everywhere”

Next, we’ll look to grow into tier two cities. We’re looking at the city of Qassim, for example, which was once the most conservative in Saudi. I’m blown away by how open and innovative it is now, but women there still don’t have anything like Studio55 yet.

RB: There’s a huge opportunity to connect with these women, creating communities that empower them in the same way we already have elsewhere. And this is such a new thing in Saudi – it’s only been possible for a few years – that there’s so much room to grow.

Fitness space with indoor cycling bikes and fitness remedies
The first Studio55 is located in Al Khobar, with a Riyadh studio also opening this year

FB: The ball really is in our court now, and we have to play it – us, and the generations that follow. Ours is the generation that took the bullets. The younger generation now need to keep showing up.

And maybe one day we’ll expand beyond Saudi. Whenever international trainers experience Studio55, they tell us they’d love something like it in their countries – the UK, Australia, the US. In Saudi, our hand is forced: we have to be women-only. But it feels like other countries might also benefit from what we do: female empowerment for women everywhere. 

Published 27. September 2023

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Simi Williams

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