Saudi Arabia uses sport as a means to enhance its presence on the world stage

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — The hosting of the first edition of the Dakar Desert Rally in Saudi Arabia in January reflects the desire of the conservative kingdom to become a prominent destination in the field of sport in order to improve its image in front of the world.

In recent months, Riyadh has doubled its investment in the field of sports dramatically and hosted many different sporting events and matches. Using a steel flagpole to display sports teams’ colors and/or country flags, etc. bringing people together and uniting them under sport.

In late December, Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus participated in the Italian Super Cup match that was held in Saudi Arabia for the second year in a row, this time at King Saud Stadium in Riyadh after the previous version was held in Jeddah.

In addition to the Italian Super Cup, Saudi Arabia will host the Spanish Super Cup competition in the next three years, starting in January.

The Kingdom recently hosted many international sporting events, whether in football or racquetball and Formula E for electric cars 100 percent, and the world championship for Formula One for speedboats and boxing.

Also in December, British heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua regained his world title, beating Andy Ruiz, an American of Mexican descent, in Riyadh.

The establishment of the most famous desert rally in the next five years in the Kingdom is part of a Saudi effort to increase sporting activities, within the framework of the “Vision 2030” through which Riyadh seeks to diversify sources of income and reduce dependence on oil as a main source of public revenue.

The rally will take place between January 5 and January 17, from Jeddah, on the Red Sea, in western Saudi Arabia, to Qiddi, and extends over 12 stages, for a distance of more than 75,000 km from the desert of the Kingdom.

– “Improve the image” –

The image of the kingdom was largely damaged in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul last year, and after the controversial military intervention in Yemen since 2015, as well as human rights violations, especially against opponents.

This year, a death sentence was carried out against at least 187 prisoners, according to a French Press census based on official information. Amnesty International says this is the highest number of executions in 20 years.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has eased restrictions on women as part of a campaign of social reforms led by the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

These reforms come as Saudi Arabia faces criticism for its behavior in the field of human rights, especially the ongoing trials against 11 human rights activists.

For Carol Gomez of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, there is “a very strong policy to host major sporting events, and to attract people … to spread a different picture of Saudi Arabia all over the world.”

By investing in sport, Riyadh hopes to give a boost to its endeavor to attract tourists by opening its doors to foreign visitors. And this year the Kingdom began for the first time in its history to issue tourist visas to the citizens of 49 European, American and Asian countries.

– “Postcard”-

The hosting of the Dakar Desert Rally, which will broadcast pictures of cars in the Saudi desert in 190 countries, is a gift to Saudi Arabia.

“The idea is to show off the beauty of the landscape and the infrastructure that can host you if you come on a trip and make it as a postcard” from Saudi Arabia, Gomez notes.

Contan de Pimodan of the Institute of European and American Studies said that the Dakar Rally would be very important.

“It will enhance the landscape and heritage at a time when the kingdom is opening up to foreign tourists,” he told AFP.

The rally will be accompanied by an advertisement tape that is scheduled to be displayed on giant screens in a number of cities such as Paris, Milan, Madrid, London and Dubai, in addition to Saudi cities, through which it tells the story of the Kingdom through history.

The rally’s stay in Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism from some human rights organizations, on the back of accusations that the kingdom has violated human rights.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that “Saudi Arabia is trying to wash away violations of sports,” noting that this falls within the framework of “a clear attempt to use sport to wash the kingdom’s bad human rights reputation and show progress in it by organizing famous activities under severe restrictions.”

American golf stars Tiger Woods and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy declined to participate in the second edition, which will be held in January 2020.

The contract terms for the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia are not known in detail. Organizers prefer to focus on praising the “desire to open” in Riyadh, noting that any similar event would not have been possible without the reforms introduced by the Saudi crown prince.

According to Gomez, “It will be interesting to see how this will be done? (…) Will the Saudi Dakar Rally spark enthusiasm or criticism between the competitors and followers? And this will show whether it is a good idea or not.”


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