Saudi Arabia uses sports as lever for ‘soft power’
PARIS - Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the Dakar Rally in January is the latest international sporting event in the kingdom that is part of a multibillion-dollar push to boost its global image.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia, under fire over alleged human rights abuses, accelerated investment in sports, mirroring a long-standing strategy adopted by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia is using glitzy sporting extravaganzas as an instrument of soft power in its push for regional influence as well as to project a moderate image of a country long seen as an exporter of jihadist ideology.
In 2019, the kingdom hosted a heavyweight boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz, a Formula E motor race and a tennis exhibition. Women’s professional wrestling, somewhat toned down from its usual glitz, also made its debut in a country where such events were once unthinkable.
In December, Cristiano Ronaldo and his Juventus teammates took to the pitch at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh for the Italian Super Cup. In January, a Barcelona side featuring Lionel Messi is to participate in the Spanish Super Cup, two months after the Argentine superstar played his first match on Saudi soil in a friendly against Brazil.
However, one of the biggest events is the Dakar Rally, one of motor racing’s most gruelling adventure rallies, which is to take place in the kingdom January 5-17. After more than a decade in South America, the rally is to remain in the Arabian Peninsula for at least five years.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s focus on sports stems partly from an economic motive to lure international tourists and boost domestic spending as the OPEC kingpin seeks to diversify its oil-reliant economy.
However, in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30, critics say glitzy sporting events are aimed at blunting public frustration over an economic downturn and soaring youth unemployment. Activists also accuse Saudi rulers of “sportswashing,” using such events to soften their international image after long being condemned over human rights abuses.
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and a sweeping crackdown on dissent have tarnished the kingdom’s reputation.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 187 death row prisoners in 2019, a tally based on official data indicated, the highest since 1995, when 195 people were executed.
While Saudi women now have the right to drive, campaigners say jailed driving activists have faced sexual harassment and torture while in detention.
“There is a very offensive policy to host major sporting events… to spread a different image of Saudi Arabia,” said Carole Gomez, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
The kingdom is using “sports diplomacy” as part of Crown Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform programme to diversify its economy, Gomez added.
Saudi officials said they expect events such as the Dakar Rally to boost tourism, one of the centrepieces of Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia began offering tourist visas for the first time last September.
The Dakar Rally, to be broadcast in 190 countries, will pass through a host of sites — from NEOM, a $500 billion futuristic megacity under construction, to the heritage site of Al-Ula and the sand dunes of the vast Empty Quarter desert.
“The idea is to praise the beauty of the landscapes, the infrastructures and to make a postcard of Saudi Arabia,” said Gomez.
Quentin de Pimodan, an expert on the Sunni kingdom at the Research Institute for European and American Studies, said the rally “will serve Saudi Arabia the same way Tour de France serves France.”
“It will showcase the landscapes and the heritage — the long shots and wide angles — as the kingdom opens up to international tourists,” he said.
However, accusations of “sportswashing” prompted some international players to shun the kingdom. Golf superstars Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy recently declined lucrative invitations to take part in a tournament organised in Saudi Arabia. McIlroy, who was reportedly offered $2.5 million in appearance fees, hinted in an interview with Golf Channel that “morality” influenced his decision.
Saudi Arabia is attempting to “sportswash away its abusive rights reputation using large-scale events, with highly controlled environments,” said Human Rights Watch. “Fans and viewers need to look past the glamour of these events.”
However, Dakar Rally organisers have praised Saudi Arabia’s “willingness to open up” amid unprecedented social reforms after years of conservatism.
Gomez said the response to the rally could help determine the effect of its sports push.
“It will be interesting to see how the event plays out, how it is experienced, what the repercussions are and what happens afterward,” said Gomez.