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Arabian fights and the sporting ambitions of a controversial Kingdom

By Dan Palmer

There is a time and a place for small talk and, usually, passport control is not it.

Convention dictates that this must be a stern affair, with smiles at a minimum as important procedures take place.

Nobody had told the official stamping me in at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, however.

Dressed in the Islamic niqāb, she exuded positivity as I approached the desk.

“Hi, how are you? First time?” she beamed. “You are excited?”

It was indeed my first time and it was the friendliest greeting I could remember upon entering a country.

Welcome to Saudi Arabia.

This is a destination, it is fair to say, which would not rank highly on most people’s travel lists.

Before September, for many people it was practically impossible to come.

This all changed when the Kingdom introduced a new online visa system which opened its borders to residents of 49 countries.

Saudi Arabia wants to welcome the world and if my passport control official was anything to go by, the country is on its best behaviour.

I didn’t know what to expect on arrival and was slightly nervous at the prospect of turning up in a nation which had previously been so secretive.

My visa had been sent to me with the passport photo on its side and I was worried that this could cause a problem.

I was also preparing myself for intense security checks and a thorough search of my bag.

The Clash on the Dunes in Saudi Arabia brought the country’s sporting ambitions into focus

Certain things are not allowed in Saudi Arabia and a quick internet search for Riyadh Airport revealed some apparent horror stories.

Everything went smoothly, however, and I was waved through with the enthusiasm normally reserved for a returning sporting hero.

Sport, of course, was why I was there and it is also a huge reason for Saudi Arabia’s new found openness.

The country has pledged to pump millions into hosting major events across a huge range of sports, including the Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr heavyweight boxing clash which I was in town for.

“Saudi Vision 2030”, the Kingdom’s long-term blueprint for the future of the country, states: “We aspire to excel in sport and be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally.”

It is without doubt an ambitious project, but it is one which will generate uncomfortable questions for both the Saudi authorities and the sports organisations and athletes who go there.

The country’s human rights record was described to me as “diabolical” by Felix Jakens, the head of campaigns at Amnesty International UK.  

And it is hard to imagine the Saudis ever escaping from the allegations that their sudden interest in events is just an attempt to “sports wash” away their negative image.

My visit came with the story of the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s Consulate in Istanbul still fresh in the memory.

Those in the top tiers of power have always denied any involvement in removing a man whose political views contrasted sharply with theirs, but the case shone a new spotlight on the country and more and more critics spoke out.

Other issues began to get increased attention – the continued use of beheadings, an alleged crackdown on human rights campaigners and the treatment of women who are described as being “shackled” to men.

So, should anyone be going at all?

“Amnesty’s position on whether or not sporting events should happen in any country in the world is always that there is no reason they shouldn’t go ahead, unless there are very direct human rights violations associated with that sporting event,” said Jakens. “Under almost all circumstances that isn’t the case.

“What we have been talking about is that the organisations and all participants, the individual athletes and team members, they should educate themselves about the situation in the country they are going to.

“Be prepared to speak out about the human rights situation in them, to raise awareness when they get back.

“Unfortunately Saudi is probably the most high profile example at the moment of using sport to clean up its reputation.”

The man who is at the centre of everything on the Saudi side is Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Saud, a Royal Family member who has a lot on his plate at the age of 36.

An accomplished motor racing driver who has sat behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Prince is the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, the organisation which is at the heart of the sporting vision.

He is also the country’s Sports Minister and President of the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee (SAOC). If a big sporting event turns up in the country, he will have had a hand in it.

Saudi Arabia has made sport a central part of its future vision

“We have two mandates in sport,” the Prince said in the media circus surrounding the Joshua-Ruiz Jr fight.

“One is to increase the number of Saudis participating. Hosting such events boosts the excitement, the interest, the awareness.

“The second mandate is to achieve excellence in hosting the events.

“We want to make sure locals get an insight into such events.”

December’s boxing bout between Joshua and American-Mexican Ruiz Jr, dubbed “The Clash on the Dunes”, is the most high-profile sporting event Saudi Arabia has held to date.

The eyes of the world were on the desert dust-up which saw Britain’s Olympic gold medallist win back the four heavyweight titles he had surprisingly lost to Ruiz Jr some six months earlier.

Joshua’s professional display, in which he out-pointed his rival by dancing around him and keeping him at arm’s length, hitting and not getting hit, probably did not excite in the same way a huge knock-out would have done.

But it would not have extinguished Saudi Arabia’s appetite for hosting and it seems that, no matter the sport, they want to stage it.

Spanish football was convinced to hold the Supercopa de España in Jeddah this month, with the event expanding from two teams to four.

Two editions of the Supercoppa Italiana have been played there, while Russia’s Daniil Medvedev won the inaugural Diriyah Tennis Cup.

Golf has its Saudi International while the International Handball Federation’s Super Globe will be in Dammam until 2022.

The International Equestrian Federation has awarded its World Cup Final in jumping and dressage to Riyadh in 2024, while the Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters will be the country’s first ranking event in the cue sport this October.

In motorsport, the 2020 Dakar Rally snaked around the country this month and Diriyah has welcomed Formula E. In 2023, the first Formula One Grand Prix could be staged.

It is a growing portfolio and the above list does not cover everything. You have to wonder what the ultimate ambition is. A FIFA World Cup? An Olympic Games?

One thing for certain is that the lure of huge amounts of cash has a lot to do with it.

Flicking to the news channels when I arrived at my hotel in Riyadh, the biggest story was oil and gas giant Saudi Aramco launching its initial public offering and raising a record $25.6 billion (£19.6 billion/€23 billion).

It is plainly clear from this gargantuan figure that the money isn’t running out any time soon. Joshua was reportedly paid a purse of $78 million (£60 million/€70 million) to box at the temporary outdoor arena which sprung up in just 47 days.

Former Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde, who was in charge of the Catalan giants at the Supercopa de España before being sacked shortly afterwards, admitted rather bluntly that everyone was in Jeddah for the money.

“The bottom line is that football is a business,” he said.

Despite his seemingly bottomless pockets, Prince Abdulaziz claims that the country will still pick and choose its events carefully and won’t just splash out on anything.

“For us, the value of the social change, the excitement and the opportunity we’re giving to the locals and international people to come here, it has no price,” he said.

“We’re not just throwing money at whatever we want.

“We are looking into what is an added value.”

Could Riyadh one day host a FIFA World Cup or Olympic Games?

Looking further ahead, sport could also be a major feature of NEOM, the sci-fi sounding name given to the “futuristic mega-city” which Saudi Arabia hopes to build in its north-west.

The brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the project is enormous in its scale and scarcely seems believable. Its name comes from the ancient Greek word for new, neo, and the first letter of the Arabic word for future, mostaqbal.

“NEOM will be an independent, vibrant, diverse new society of millions,” a brochure confidently predicts. “It will be the most exciting, fulfilling place to live and work on the planet.”

New technology and environmentally friendly measures are central to the plans, with the “world’s greatest minds and best talents” hoped to be encouraged to live there.

A report in the Wall Street Journal last year even said that flying cars, robot dinosaurs and an artificial moon were envisioned. NEOM, essentially, is beyond bonkers. But, if it all happens how Saudi Arabia hopes, the world’s best athletes could call the city home.

“Global sporting visionaries, athletes and fans coming to NEOM will become part of a sporting revolution,” the brochure says. “NEOM will ignite every athlete’s passion for sport and healthy living.

“Smart facilities designed to satisfy each individual athlete’s training requirements and lifestyle programmes will take them to peak performance.

“Fans from every nation will come to celebrate the elite of international sports.

“Together they will experience the very best competitions performed in unprecedented arenas with amenities designed to offer maximum comfort and reward them with outstanding sporting experiences and rich memories.”

There are fears in Saudi Arabia that the fall-out from the Khashoggi case will have cooled international interest in investing in NEOM.

But the plans should certainly not be ignored, and the general enthusiasm for sport is being noticed by the wider population.

Sports journalist Abdul Rahman Al-Olayani described hosting so many major events as a “dream”.

“It is something we never thought it would be, but it came true by the vision of our young Crown Prince H.H. Mohammed bin Salman,” he said.

“Now, they are looking to sports differently.

“Before it was just like hobbies. Now it plays a major role in the economy, tourism, entertainment, even to change the wrong idea that the world thinks about Saudi Arabia.

“We are noticing a lot of changes in the country, and the people are so excited about that.”

Saudi Arabia, then, is not going away but will they ever be accepted? The Kingdom could discover that the more events they host, the louder the voices speaking out against them become.

By inviting the world, a country’s issues are placed into sharp focus. Every time a sporting carnival rolls into town, the international pressure can ramp up.

“While high profile sporting events are taking place there, the human rights situation is actually getting worse,” said Jakens.

“There are still huge numbers of people who have spoken out against the Saudi authorities who are in prison, we know that there is torture and detention and grossly unfair trials taking place.

“There’s been no justice for the family of Jamal Khashoggi.

“Beheading is still routinely used, women who are raped can face charges of adultery.

“The human rights situation is dire and until that meaningfully changes, Amnesty will call on anyone who goes there to public events to raise awareness and to speak out.

“By speaking out they can create pressure which can lead to change.”

Fireworks at the Kingdom Centre in Riyadh

Last month, five people were sentenced to death and a further three were jailed for the murder of Khashoggi. It is Amnesty International’s position, however, that the trial was a sham and those who masterminded the crime have not faced justice.

The death penalty, and the still-used method of beheading, remains what comes to many foreigner’s minds when they think about the country.

Human rights organisation Reprieve released figures this month which said 184 people had been executed in Saudi Arabia in 2019, including 90 foreigners.

In Riyadh I visited Deera Square, which has been given the rather macabre nickname of “Chop Chop Square” as the site of public beheadings.

Black drains are immediately noticeable when you enter a place which has become infamous for bloody demises. But when I was there the square was being used for a cultural celebration. 

Local performers banged drums and food stands were scattered about. It was as if the city was trying to reclaim the square and move it away from its grisly reputation.

At one end of the Square is the headquarters of the hai’a, the Islamic religious police which is officially known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia considerably scaled back the organisation’s power, stripping officers of the right to make arrests and urging them to enforce Islamic rules more “kindly and gently”.

Places such as shopping malls used to be routinely patrolled to monitor laws such as ensuring businesses shut during the five calls for prayer. Women were prevented from being seen with men from outside their family.

I was told that now, the hai’a are rarely seen, at least in Riyadh. At the cultural event in the Square, a light show was being projected onto the face of their building. I’m not sure if that would have happened a few years back.

Supporters will point to this change and others as proof that Saudi Arabia is moving forward. They will also argue, perhaps, that allowing the country to host sporting events will help encourage social change.

In 2017, King Salman removed a much publicised discrimination and gave women the right to drive. The strict male guardianship system has also been relaxed and women are now allowed to travel and apply for divorce.

When eating in restaurants and cafes in Riyadh as a man on my own, I had to be careful that I didn’t stray into the women and families section. On the day after the Joshua fight the Government announced that this rule, which necessitated separate entrances and exits, would also be ending.

In a sporting sense, the authorities claim women’s rights are also improving.

“A lot of what you see being built is managed by Saudi women,” Prince Abdulaziz said before the boxing.

“And 30 per cent of our employees in the General Sports Authority are now women. If you looked at it five years ago, there were just two.

“We’ve come a long way. I know we still have a lot to do, but we’re moving towards that.

“Criticism is going to happen, whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. We have a strategy, we have a plan that we want to achieve.

“We’re fixing the social scene within the Kingdom. If you look at only two years ago, women weren’t allowed to get into the stadiums to watch a football match.

“Now they’re allowed and they’re allowed to participate, allowed to be part of the national team. So criticism will happen, we accept it. We’re not perfect, but we’re striving towards a positive future.”

Anthony Joshua’s boxing victory is the biggest sporting moment to take place in Saudi Arabia so far

For Jakens, the argument that some improvements have been made just doesn’t wash.

“There are some small steps forward,” he said. “After decades of being officially discriminated against, women are now allowed to drive.

“But several of the women who campaigned for that specific right are in prison or on bail awaiting trial, facing very long sentences for their campaigning.

“Loujain al-Hathloul remains awaiting trial in Saudi for calling for the right for women to be able to drive.

“The idea that because women now have that simple right, everything is changing in Saudi Arabia, masks the fact that critics of the Government, in a major crackdown over the past three or four years, have all been jailed or harassed until they become silent.

“While there are small steps forward in terms of actual change the picture is still really grim.

“We wouldn’t call for fans to boycott an event, but we would say educate yourself about the situation, make an informed decision.”

It remains to be seen how many athletes will speak out if asked to compete in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International claimed Joshua had been “duped” by the local authorities after he suggested he could not “put on a cape and save the world”.

Northern Ireland’s four-time major winning golfer Rory McIlroy did appear to make a stand, however, by opting out of the Saudi International. He said “morality” played a part in his decision.

One wonders if the experience of German and Arsenal footballer Mesut Özil will prevent other athletes from speaking their minds. After voicing an opinion about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, Arsenal’s match with Manchester City was pulled from Chinese television and Özil was even deleted from video games.

Arsenal’s response was to say that Özil’s comments were his “personal opinion”. To many this was throwing him under the bus and protecting the club’s interests in the lucrative Chinese market over that of their player.

China, of course, is a much more developed sporting market than Saudi Arabia but the Kingdom will be looking for rapid improvement both on and off the field of play.

The country has never won an Olympic gold medal with Hadi Al-Somaily’s 400 metres hurdles silver at Sydney 2000 their best achievement.

At the same Games, Khaled Al Eid won bronze in the individual showjumping. Equestrian provided another bronze at London 2012 in the men’s team jumping, with the Saudi medal count remaining at three. Women were only selected for the first time in London, with judoka Wojdan Shaherkani and 800m runner Sarah Attar both chosen.

Kariman Abuljadayel competed in the 100m at Rio 2016 and generated many headlines after running in a full black bodysuit. She has now taken up rowing.

At the SAOC, plenty seems to be happening. Vision 2030 calls for an improvement in public health and more people taking up sport, and this was the theme when 500 children took part in an Olympic Day event on New Year’s Eve.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach visited Jeddah in September and spoke about the opportunities for women. He met members of the SAOC’s first Athletes’ Commission, which has gender parity.

“I’m really excited by the development of sport in Saudi Arabia at both the grassroots and elite level,” said the German, who has made no secret of his view that politics has no place in the Olympic Movement.

“The enthusiasm of the young athletes really touched me, and also to see, in particular, the many young girls participating is really a very encouraging sign.”

Saudi Arabia will compete at Tokyo 2020 but it is likely too early for any real success.

“It will be better than before but not significantly,” said Al-Olayani. “They started a short plan to improve the performance but it’s not enough to win a lot of medals.”

Before then, more mega-events might have already been confirmed for the Kingdom. Could an Olympics one day arrive? 

“I hope so and I think we will host it,” said Al-Olayani. “The Kingdom now will compete to host all international events.”

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach visited Jeddah

While watching the light show at Deera Square and the adjacent Masmak Fortress, I did wonder if the Olympic Rings could one day be projected in the capital. I thought the same when watching fireworks shoot off the top of Kingdom Centre, an impressive skyscraper which is shaped like a bottle opener.

To be honest, the prospect of a Games was hard to imagine as I found Riyadh to be a quiet place that was mostly being dug up on my visit so a new metro could be built.

Walking around was a huge challenge as large highways that are impossible to cross intersect the city. I saw a handful of boxing fans risking life and limb by dashing over a few lanes and dodging the traffic.

Eddie Hearn, the boxing promoter who presented the fight, pointed out the presence of major international companies such as Starbucks and Gucci when trying to get critics to cut his sport some slack.

If they are there, then why can’t we be? It is an interesting theory. Global politics has also not shunned Saudi Arabia as the country currently holds the G20 Presidency. 

This year’s G20 Summit will be in Riyadh, while the United Nations Economic and Social Council elected the country to the Commission on the Status of Women.

All of this will foster much debate. In sport, those involved will have to examine their conscience and see which side of the fence they fall.


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