LONDON - Saudi Arabia has set up a ministerial committee to consider allowing women's sports clubs, al-Watan daily newspaper reported on Saturday, despite opposition to female exercise from religious conservatives.

Abdullah al-Zamil, a senior official from the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, the top Saudi sporting body, said the committee was being formed to end the "chaos" surrounding women's sports clubs which are effectively unregulated, Watan reported.

"The mission of the committee is focused on building a system for these clubs," the newspaper, owned by a member of the Saudi royal family, quoted Zamil as saying.

In the austere desert kingdom, powerful clerics have long argued against women playing sports or doing physical exercise, forcing female gyms to be designated as expensive "health centers".

A member of the top clerical body in 2009 said girls should not play sports lest they lose their virginity by tearing their hymens. State-run girls schools are banned from sports, but private girls schools are allowed to offer sports classes.

The General Presidency of Youth Welfare only regulates male clubs and its head was recently quoted as saying he would not endorse Saudi women athletes at the 2012 Olympics.

Human Rights Watch has called on the International Olympic Committee to bar the kingdom from the London games unless it fields a woman athlete.

The most likely woman candidate to compete under the Saudi flag, equestrian Dalma Malhas, represented the kingdom at the junior Olympics in Singapore in 2010, but without official support or recognition.

Saudi women are barred from driving and need the permission of a close male relative to work, travel or open a bank account, but King Abdullah last year said they could vote in municipal elections, the country's only public polls.

Saudi Arabia's only female deputy minister, Noura al-Fayez, has written to HRW saying there is a plan to introduce physical education at girls' state schools.

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