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How Sports Are Making Saudi Arabia Look Better Than Ever

Saudi Arabia's bold bet on becoming a world-class player in the field of international sports has won the kingdom unprecedented global attention, emerging as a key component in its social and economic transformation through the broader Vision 2030 project headed by its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
This spotlight has also largely succeeded in redefining narratives of Saudi Arabia's reputation abroad in countries like the United States, where long-standing concerns over the nation's human rights situation have been substantially diluted as Riyadh bears the soft power fruits of its multibillion-dollar push to attract foreign fans, talent and events.
"Some people might call this sportswashing," Simon Chadwick, a professor at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, who specializes in the nexus between geopolitics, economics and sports, told Newsweek. "But nevertheless, I think there's something too in terms of image, reputation, legitimacy, and that, for me, that's always a crucial word, legitimacy."
"Because if you are contributing to the successful delivery of sports and sporting events, which the rest of the world deems to be important," he added, "then you ascend to a much stronger position of legitimacy."
The campaign appears to be working. Recent polling conducted on behalf of Newsweek by Redfield & Wilton Strategies showed that some 57 percent of 1,500 eligible U.S. voters polled on June 11-12 were not at all familiar with the term "sportswashing" and, once provided a definition, less than half, 47 percent, expressed concern over it.
Slightly more, 48 percent, expressed concern over the level of investment being devoted into sports by the Saudi Arabia's $900-billion-dollar Public Investment Fund (PIF). And yet 33 percent of those who identified as sports fans would support the PIF purchasing their favorite team, compared with 32 percent who would oppose such a measure.
The definition of "sportswashing" provided was "the use of sport or a sporting event to promote a positive public image for a sponsor or host (typically a government or commercial organization), and as a means of distracting attention from other activities considered controversial, unethical, or illegal."
The term has appeared in the media for years. Besides Saudi Arabia, some other countries to be branded with this label over the past decade include Azerbaijan, China, Israel, North Korea and Turkmenistan, as well as fellow wealthy Arabian Peninsula monarchies Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have also increasingly invested in their sports legacy in recent years.
The phenomenon is far older. For example, the iconic boxing bout 50 years ago between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali known as the "Rumble in the Jungle" and hosted in the former African nation of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was widely viewed as an attempt by the nation's longtime president Mobutu Sese Seko to overcome a beleaguered reputation as a third-world autocrat.
The event was also reportedly funded in part by Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and has been considered one of the greatest matchups of the 20th century.
Decades earlier, in the years leading up to World War II, Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler oversaw the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The international gathering was widely celebrated at the time and came to define much of the imagery and customs now associated with the modern Olympic Games.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, the kingdom is already a highly globalized nation with deepening ties both East and West. Allegations of gender discrimination, labor abuses and other human rights violations, such as the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul, have hardly deterred U.S. and European investment in the kingdom.
When it comes to sportswashing, Chadwick argued the term may be too broadly applied—or misapplied—to have a meaningful definition, particularly as it relates to Saudi Arabia, whose sports-focused initiatives are about far more than just improving the nation's image abroad.
"I think the term has been dangerously and simplistically appropriated by the media, and also by fan groups and by others who want a quick and easy way to characterize what the likes of Saudi Arabia are now doing," Chadwick said. "I say dangerous because it seems, I think, particularly for those of us in the Global North who refer to sportswashing, it's just a very easy way to kind of kick off our shoes, lean back in our chairs and say, 'They're just sportswashers.'"
"What we should be doing," he added, "is we should be thinking more carefully about the nuanced and more diverse nature of the activities in which Saudi Arabia and others are now engaged."
Sport As Big Business
Sports is just one tenet of Vision 2030, the ambitious plan to reshape the kingdom through social reforms and the diversification of the economy away from oil dependence. It was first unveiled in 2016, a year before Crown Prince Mohammed was named heir by his father, King Salman. The campaign has since come to dominate the trajectory of Saudi domestic and foreign policy, particularly as the young royal has assumed greater power and influence within the absolute monarchy.
"As far as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is concerned, investing in and promoting the sports sector is a win-win," Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy to the U.S., told Newsweek. "It helps the kingdom meet several of its Vision 2030 goals. That includes diversifying the economy, generating jobs and improving the quality of life for Saudis and expatriates alike."
"It has also created a new generation of young men and women who are playing the sports that they love and are proudly representing the kingdom in various international arenas," he added.
Much like the rest of Vision 2030, the Saudi drive to establish itself as a global sports destination is focused first and foremost on the kingdom itself, Nazer argued.
"The notion that the transformative reforms currently underway in the kingdom are simply an attempt to improve the kingdom's image globally is widely off the mark," he said. "Every single measure or initiative being implemented in Saudi Arabia has one of two primary objectives; either to advance the national interest of the kingdom in general or to improve the lives of Saudi people or both.
"Every other consideration is a distant second," he added.
While sports may not be the most immediately obvious driver of national change, Aseel Alghamdi, assistant professor of marketing at Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Economic City, spoke directly to how they fit within the big plans for the kingdom's future.
"The investment in this area is part of Vision 2030 toward positioning the country to be a hub for sporting events to promote quality of life, create job opportunities and more importantly diversify the economy away from oil and gas (i.e. hydrocarbons) which will support other related sectors to flourish, such as tourism and culture," Alghamdi told Newsweek. "And sport is a major cornerstone for both of these GDP-related sectors."
Alghamdi estimated a spike of up to 40 million tourists in Saudi Arabia last year, indicating a warm reception for international visitors that has managed to triumph over negative coverage.
"Sports, by default, are filled with energy, passion, activity, happiness and joy and such 'genuine' approaches by Saudi Arabia toward sport spectators around the world are taking place among a very carefully crafted Saudi Nation branding program of tourism, culture, and entertainment," Alghamdi said. "People, including in the U.S., started to notice the great and sincere efforts by Saudi Arabia to be a major player in sports, among many other sectors."
As such, he argued, "it will be counterintuitive to host all of these amazingly managed and impactful sport events while human rights are an issue, which is not the case."
Just a few of the more notable achievements thus far in Saudi Arabia's bid to win over international sports fans include the recruiting of soccer megastar Cristiano Ronaldo to national soccer league team Al Nassr FC, the purchasing of English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United, the hosting of major events such as WWE, MMA and boxing pay-per-views, the FIFA Club World Cup in December 2023 and Formula One racing's annual Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as well as the establishment of the PIF-owned LIV golf league as a rival to traditional giant PGA, with talks ongoing for a merger between the two.
Saudi Arabia is now on track to host this year's Women's Tennis Association finals, the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, the 2029 Asian Winter Games and the 2034 FIFA World Cup, becoming only the second Middle Eastern nation to do so after Qatar. It all further entrenches the kingdom's position as a world leader in sports and brings it closer to realizing its all-encompassing Vision 2030.
"Vision 2030 is the horizon that is meant to not only restructure Saudi Arabia but re-imagine the Saudi state," Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi foreign policy expert and fellow at Project SEPAD of Lancaster University's Richardson Institute in the United Kingdom, told Newsweek. "Sports plays a fascinating function in Saudi Arabia, as it is the nexus of top-down investment with bottom-up initiatives."
"In addition, sports in general are a universal language and Saudi Arabia wants to be a universal hub," Alghashian said. "So, investing in sports, hosting sporting events and importing famous athletes enables Saudi to be on the global map—crucial to the objectives of 2030."
The Crown Prince and His Critics
The trend points toward Riyadh's persistence in pursuing this path despite the opprobrium that still resounds among critics.
"The Saudis have thick skin, and after decades of being demonized with accusations, they are conditioned to continue with their projects because they know that it's in the interests of others to work with the Saudis," Alghashian said. "Where the Saudis have succeeded is that they know how to pitch their grand entrance into sports because they never wanted to gain international legitimacy or acceptance."
"Rather, they are speaking with a language of interests," he added. "They are basically projecting that the international sports the Saudis are investing in, hosting, promoting, will elevate the sport by having a great deal of Saudi backing. This is something the Saudi ruling elite have mastered over the decades."
Crown Prince Mohammed famously offered his frank view of such accusations during an interview with Fox News in September of last year.
"If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by way of one percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing," the crown prince said at the time. "I don't care. One percent growth of GDP from sport and I'm aiming for another one-and-a-half percent—call it whatever you want, we're going to get that one-and-a-half percent."
Mugbil Binjudia, CEO of Saudi Arabia's FG Sports, was similarly dismissive of outside criticisms in the face of the kingdom's full-court-press toward global sports leadership and the realization of Vision 2030.
"The successful person is always a warrior," Binjudia told Newsweek. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under its wise leadership, is moving forward with a giant project whose beginning is Vision 2030 and whose extension is successes that everyone will see and experience, God willing, in the coming years."
"Therefore, criticism will continue from some for purely personal goals," he added. "They are either hateful, trolls or fearful of the kingdom. As an upcoming competitor for top positions in all economic, sports, political and social fields … all the successes achieved up to this moment are only the beginning and, God willing, everyone will do us justice when the giant Saudi project is completed, and you will see Saudi sports in a position worthy of it."
Binjudia asserted that Saudi citizens were also supportive of the initiative at a time when Vision 2030 has fueled a newfound sense of nationalism.
"What others do not know about Saudi society … is that it is a society that loves its homeland and its leadership," Binjudia said, "and does not accept under any circumstances that the homeland and the wise leadership that works day and night be harmed for the advancement of Saudi Arabia as a country and a people."
"What development is happening in Saudi Arabia today is proof that the leadership is taking Saudi Arabia to the summit," he added, "and the Saudis are proud of this and have blind and unlimited confidence in their leadership."
How the West Was Won
While drawing Western audiences may be a key component in the success of the kingdom's massive investment in global sports, the Saudi public may ultimately be the most important stakeholder.
Pointing to Crown Prince Mohammed's response to sportswashing allegations, Natalie Koch, a political geographer and professor at Syracuse University in New York, told Newsweek that the monarch-in-waiting "is more concerned about selling these projects to his people than he is in selling them to the West."
"MbS' main challenge with the global sports investments is that he wants to modernize economic, political and social life in Saudi Arabia along Western lines, but not to alienate parts of the Saudi population who do not like the idea of 'selling out' to the West," Koch said. "So, all of these big sports investments have to be carefully positioned as somehow contributing to Saudi national interests."
In any case, Western support has not been hard to come by.
"This is one of the biggest problems with the sportswashing cliché," Koch said, "that it focuses too much on the Saudi side of the story, at the expense of understanding how different people in the sports world—including Western-based athletes, team owners, organizing committees and institutions, sports media, etc.— all benefit from these major investments."
"They are often happy to take the money of the Gulf investors," she added, "including Saudi Arabia."
Newsweek

Jun 24, 2024 02:23
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