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Saudi Arabia Spends Billions on ‘Sportwashing’ in Bid for Global Respectability

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Tahani Alqahtani of Saudi Arabia, left, and Raz Hershko of Israel compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Tahani Alqahtani of Saudi Arabia, left, and Raz Hershko of Israel compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Judoka Tahani Alqahtani made history twice. Aside from being one of only two Saudi women competing in the Tokyo Olympics (the other was 100-meter sprinter Yasmeen Aldabbagh), she was the first Saudi athlete to agree to go head-to-head with an Israeli, Raz Hershko.

Alqahtani lost the match, but instead of turning her back, she shook Hershko’s hand and wished her success. That’s a significant step in a kingdom that, until three years ago, forbade women to attend soccer games and banned competing with Israelis.

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Women’s judo is a relatively new sport in Saudi Arabia. Only in 2018 did King Saud University open a women’s judo academy, in which some 130 young women enrolled. That’s where Alqahtani trained, after previously training in Egypt and Uzbekistan. She has won many prizes, and even represented her country in this year’s world judo championship in Hungary.

For Saudi Arabia, this is another important step not just toward advancing women’s sports in the kingdom, but also toward branding it as a country that participates in international events, rather than merely one that liquidates opponents of the royal family and rivals of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Many still blame the crown prince for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The crown prince drafted and now seeks to implement the Vision 2030 plan, whose main goal is to diversify the kingdom’s revenue sources and reduce its dependence on oil. Other strategic goals include replacing foreign workers with Saudis, recruiting investors for development projects, building the “city of the future” (Neom) at a cost of some $500 billion and turning Saudi Arabia into a center for tourism and international sports.

For years, Saudi Arabia has influenced global sports through enormous investments, mainly in leading soccer clubs. According to a report published this year by the British human rights organization Grant Liberty, the kingdom has spent at least $1.5 billion on various sports in recent years. It has bought players and stakes in teams and organized sporting events in Saudi Arabia.

Among other investments, it spent more than $650 million on a 10-year contract with Formula One. Under this agreement, the auto race will be held in the Red Sea city of Jiddah this year, for the first time.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman receives Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan upon his arrival to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 19, 2021.Credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY - Reuters

In addition, the report said, Saudi Arabia paid $500 million for a 10-year contract with World Wrestling Entertainment in 2014 under which competitions and shows featuring leading wrestlers would be held in the kingdom. It also signed deals with the soccer federations of Spain and Italy, worth $145 million and $24 million respectively, and paid $100 million to host a boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in 2019.

Other sports have also received generous Saudi patronage. The kingdom paid $2 million for an international chess competition in 2019 and $60 million for a horse race with a purse of $20 million. There have been many other expensive sporting events in the kingdom whose exact cost isn’t known, the report added.

Saudi Arabia has also had some failures. An attempt to buy the British soccer club Newcastle United for $400 million collapsed due to public criticism in Britain. An attempt to recruit Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to promote tourism in the kingdom, for a fee of $6 million, also failed.

The kingdom is now building a sports and resort city called Qiddiya. It is slated to host important sporting events, as part of the Saudi effort to diversify its revenues.

But developing its hospitality industry and promoting sporting events in the kingdom aren’t just economic moves. Saudi Arabia is also in a fierce competition with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have spent huge sums in an effort to brand themselves as part of the modern West thanks to their contributions to global sports and thereby blur their image as countries that suppress human rights and are far removed from democratic values.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE declared Qatar a hostile state, and together with Egypt they imposed an economic blockade. When it began, in June 2017, Qatar didn’t cut spending. It laid out 222 million euros to buy Brazilian soccer player Neymar for the Paris Saint-German club, which it owns.

In 2022, Qatar will host the World Cup. It’s not clear how much it spent to acquire that honor. But Saudi Arabia has tried hard to undermine Qatar’s exclusivity. It urged FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to split the games between the two countries and encouraged criticism of Qatar’s treatment of the tens of thousands of migrant workers who are building Doha’s new stadiums, which resulted in 7,000 of them dying.

Yasmeen Aldabbagh of Saudi Arabia and Charlotte Afriat of Monaco in action, Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 30, 2021.Credit: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Now, Saudi Arabia is bidding to host the World Cup in 2030, when Crown Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 is supposed to come to fruition. He considers this an excellent opportunity to welcome an international audience, most of which views the kingdom as an automated teller machine rather than a friend. Though it benefits from Saudi investments, the world also sees them as whitewash covering up internal rot. The crown prince is trying to erode this image.

According to the Saudi Sports Ministry, the kingdom’s sporting economy has grown by more than 173 percent over the last three years and its contribution to gross domestic product has grown by 22 percent. But huge investments in international sporting events and acquisitions don’t guarantee the development of Saudi sport.

Crown Prince Mohammed can build luxury stadiums and modern training facilities, but he can’t create any athletes out of nothing, much less female athletes, who are still imprisoned in a web of prohibitions and restrictions that bars their participation in certain sports. An international appearance by a female Saudi athlete is still considered a rare event – encouraging on one hand, but also infuriating to the kingdom’s conservative elements.