Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Saudi Arabia, sports is an instrument to gain international legitimacy

Saudi sportswashing
Red Bull Ktm factory team biker Matthias Walkner of Austria powers his Ktm motorbike during the Stage 1 of the Dakar 2020 between Jeddah and Al Wajh, Saudi Arabia, on January 5, 2020. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Boxing championship, horse races, gulf cup, Formula one, are as many sports fields Saudi Arabia entered in 2018 and 2019 by hosting events and investing in teams. It is all part of the Vision 2030 objectives, which calls for the weaning off of the country’s near total dependency on its oil resources and the introduction of a more diversified economic portfolio.

The Kingdom’s investments in sports have drastically increased recently, which are explained in Vision 2030 as: “creating a vibrant society with fulfilling lives” through among other things “the promotion of physical and social well-being and healthy lifestyle”. It wants to be “encouraging widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities, (and) working in partnership with the private sector to establish additional dedicated facilities and programs”, as well as developing the sports sector as well as building strong relations with continental and international sports associations. In November 2016, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the kingdom’s General Sports Authority, the government body responsible for the development of sports in the kingdom, to set up a Sports Development Fund that bolstered sports activity in the country. The objectives of the fund were to privatize football clubs to increase participation, promote new sports events, and add 40,000 jobs to the economic marketplace.

This involvement is shown through the “sports” page of Enjoy Saudi, the newly launched website dedicated  to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia, which is full of events to come such as Jeddah marathon on March 3, 2020, a motorcycle “free style” competition on April 6, or a basketball show on May 25. Saudi Arabia, through the Saudi Arabia Jockey Club, also announced in August 2019 that it will host the richest race on the planet, the $20 million Saudi Cup at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh in February 2020, then that the country will host the much-anticipated heavyweight boxing rematch between former world champion Anthony Joshua and Mexican Andy Ruiz Jr. The Kingdom is also trying to join the Formule One circuit, after already staging a Formula E event in the Ad Diriyah district and a World Boxing Super Series event in 2018. Football has also become a feature of Saudi Arabia, with Brazil and Argentina signing a deal to play matches in Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia is becoming attractive for combat sports, with both World Wrestling Entertainment and the World Boxing Super Series happening there.

All of this has pushed some people and entities, like Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns Felix Jakens, to accuse the country of using sport as a vehicle to improve its reputation in the wake of human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi-led military attacks on Yemeni civilians, homes and hospitals. It’s called “sportswashing”, a trend in which countries with questionable human rights reputations organize mass sporting events to escape international opprobrium. The term itself is credited to 2015’s Sports or Rights campaign, a bid to call out Azerbaijan’s attempt “to distract from its human rights record with prestigious sponsorship and hosting of events” such as the European Games held in Baku.

The international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on December 6 a statement saying that: “Under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is rolling out ever more entertainment and sporting events, an apparent attempt to “sportswash” away its abusive rights reputation using large-scale events, with highly controlled environments, to show a progressive face of the kingdom. Barely one year after Saudi state agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials are racing to lock in hosting contracts with other major sports federations.” HRW noted one positive aspect of the situation: “One positive dimension of Saudi Arabia’s newfound enthusiasm for sports is that the rules of sport increasingly require adherence to international human rights standards.”, but also commented that it would be “ cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world.”

For Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, sportswashing is a term to use with more caution. “I don’t disagree with all the extent of the word, but it is used too frequently and it’s a misleading label”, Chadwick told Fanack. “If we take Saudi Arabia, and also Qatar, Abu Dhabi, etc, by investing in sports I don’t think the world thinks suddenly they are great countries. At the opposite, their investments shed light on what is going on, so rather than sportswashing, it draws attention to the countries’ failings.” For him, it’s more of a “diversionary tactic”: “Saudi Arabia, like its neighbors, is trying to acquire legitimacy and be part of the international community through sports. Their commitment towards the sports international community is like asking the diverse committees to forget their misdemeanors and focus more on the events, teams and sponsorship. It is a diplomatic tool.”

Through sports, some positive steps have also been taken by Saudi Arabia, like taking a more positive stand on women’s football and allowing women to attend sports events. “Sports is an enabler of change”, Chadwick believes. “Saudi Arabia’s investment in sports will help accomplish changes, notably through the will of attracting more tourists to the Kingdom. It’s also important in a country where sedentary life is spread and the diabetes rate is so high, it a public health issue.” Saudi Arabia ranks the second highest in the Middle East, and is seventh in the world for the rate of diabetes. It is estimated that around 7 million of the population are diabetic and almost around 3 million have pre-diabetes.