DIRIYAH – A world class tennis exhibition, an international golf tournament, a Formula series car race and the world heavyweight boxing championship share a peculiar commonality: They've all played out in Saudi Arabia this year.
By hosting major sporting events, Saudi Arabia aims to draw attention to the sweeping social changes underway in the country and encourage Saudis to turn their attention to sports. Yet some big-name athletes have stayed away amid criticism the events are also an effort in "sportswashing” by diverting attention from the kingdom's human rights record.
“We will face criticism whether we do something or we don't,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, the 36-year-old royal who heads the kingdom's General Sports Authority, said.
The prince leads the GSA's spending spree to revolutionize sports in Saudi Arabia. While the sports authority's budget is not public, it did reveal in July a $667 million plan to improve local clubs. The authority also oversees the biggest sporting events that have taken place in the country. It's also organizing the upcoming Dakar Rally that kicks off Jan. 5.
“Saudi Arabia is going through a transformation,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
"We were always criticized that we are not opening up to the world, we're not doing anything in the kingdom, we're not opening up to tourism." he said. “Now that we're doing it, they're calling it ‘sportswash’."
The prince spoke with The Associated Press at a tennis exhibition in Saudi Arabia that drew eight of the world's top 20 male tennis players. It was the first ever such tournament to be played in the kingdom.
While the changes have been hailed, rights groups like Amnesty International have also expressed concern that the kingdom could be using sports to rehabilitate its image and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reputation following international outcry last year over the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist who'd written critically about the crown prince was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of Saudi agents, including some who directly worked for Prince Mohammed.
Women’s rights activists, clerics, writers and others have also been targeted for arrest — part of a far-reaching crackdown on dissent overseen by Prince Mohammed as he consolidates power and pushes through an ambitious overhaul of the kingdom.
In just a few short years, the 34-year-old crown prince has upended the country's ultraconservative rules with state backing for concerts and movie theaters that had for generations been banned. Women now drive in Saudi Arabia, are no longer required to sit in separate spaces than men at restaurants and can travel abroad without male permission.
Sports has been used to phase in some of these social changes that were once deemed too controversial or sensitive. Women, for example, are now allowed into stadiums to watch soccer and competed for the first time against men as horse-riders in an equestrian festival last week. This comes after years of leading Saudi clerics warning that women's participation in sports was immodest and blurs gender lines.
“Sports has been a tool for social change within the kingdom,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
Young people, he said, are driving that change. More than half of Saudi Arabia's population of around 20 million are under the age of 25.
Last year's Formula-E electric car race was used as a trial of sorts for Saudi Arabia's new tourism visas. It was also the venue for the first-ever major concert performed near the capital, Riyadh. The concert drew international stars Enrique Iglesias and Black Eyed Peas. American hip hop artists Tyga and Chris Brown headlined this year. Tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women, standing shoulder-to-shoulder unsegregated, had never witnessed anything like that in their country before.
“We've had 40,000 people come to the concerts. That tells you something. There are people who want this," Prince Abdulaziz said. “We are here to cater to everyone. If you don't want it, you don't have to attend.”
The most headline-grabbing event thus far was the rematch earlier this month between British fighter Anthony Joshua and Mexican-American champion Andy Ruiz Jr. Joshua reportedly pocketed $70 million for winning the heavyweight crown.
The fight took place in a stadium in Diriyah that juts out of the desert near a more than 300-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site that recently opened to the public. The site showcases the simple clay homes that the country's rulers and their allied tribes lived in before the country was established and oil was unearthed.
It was here in Diriyah where the ruling Al Saud, for whom the country is named, founded the first Saudi dynasty in the Arabian Peninsula. It's also in Diriyah where Saudi Arabia's austere interpretation of Islam, referred to widely as Wahhabism, was born.
Prince Abdulaziz described Diriyah as a place that shows the “glory of where everything started.” He spoke from the V.I.P stands overlooking the Diriyah Tennis Cup.
“For us, we have a plan and we have a strategy that we're going to move forward with,” he said.
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