After the World Cup in Qatar, it is Saudi Arabia’s turn to show muscle in its sports diplomacy strategy. This week, the absolute monarchy hosts the legendary Dakar Rally for the fourth consecutive year and, the following week, the Spanish Super Cup will be played again on Saudi soil. In addition, this Tuesday the presentation of the new star signing of the Al Nassr football team was held: Cristiano Ronaldo.
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The ultra-conservative kingdom also has a professional golf circuit that aims to compete with the American one and an English first division soccer team: Newcastle. The state company Aramco, the world’s largest oil company and the backbone of the Saudi economy, also participates in this sporting effort by sponsoring competitions of international relevance.
Behind these big sporting events and acquisitions is the Arab country’s need to diversify its economy, which has been based on oil in the past decades: it is the largest exporter in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and owns the 17th % of world oil reserves. The Saudi regime is betting on the sport and investing large amounts of money not only for financial gain, but to improve its international reputation and modernize its image.
Ali Adubisi, director of the Saudi European Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR, for its acronym in English), tells elDiario.es that it is not clear if the Saudi monarchy is obtaining economic benefits from the multimillion-dollar investments in sports: “The money does not matter, the main objective is to improve its image. Saudi Arabia has a grand strategy of sportswashingpromoted by the Government and the private sector and will continue to invest a lot of money”.
He gives as an example the recent signing of Cristiano Ronaldo by the Saudi football club Al Nassrwhich in his opinion shows that some sports or music stars “only want the money” offered by Saudi Arabia: “Some artists or athletes have rejected (the offers), others come and take the opportunity to send a message in favor of the human rights, but some do not care about human rights even in their own countries”, he laments.
According to a statement from Amnesty International, “the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo by Al-Nassr is part of yet another example of the sports image laundering policy in Saudi Arabia.” “It is very likely that the Saudi authorities will promote Ronaldo’s presence in the country as a means of diverting attention from the country’s appalling human rights record.”
The strategy has been designed and promoted above all by the ruler de facto of the country, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salmán, alias MBS. “He wants to make himself known around the world, attract attention, be the best and number one and tries to present a modern image” to counter his reputation as an “enemy of human rights”, says Adubisi. The director of the NGO, based in Berlin, recalls the numerous human rights violations that take place in Saudi Arabia under the leadership of MBS and the incident that has most tarnished his reputation: the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at his country’s consulate in Istanbul, which was planned, or at least authorized, by MBS itself, US intelligence services concluded.
A vision for the future
David Roberts, an expert on the Persian Gulf of King’s College of London, maintains that Saudi Arabia’s strategy is part of a much broader and far-reaching project: the ‘Vision 2030’, launched in 2016 and whose objective is to diversify the kingdom’s economy and boost non-oil sectors such as tourism, culture, leisure and sport. “Vision 2030 includes many projects: some aimed at building the reputation and image of the country abroad and others aimed at the national level, to try to improve the Saudi economy and diversify it,” the professor told elDiario.es.
“Saudi Arabia has a special interest in offering a different image in the West and around the world, for example, with investments such as [la compra del club de fútbol británico] Newcastle for the great visibility that the premier league globally. He is using football in many ways to improve the brand of Saudi Arabia and to associate the country with something positive, that people love, that they spend a lot of their money and time on.”
However, Roberts prefers not to call him sportswashing. “Saudi leaders want to present a new image of the kingdom that replaces the old one associated with more traditional and negative aspects of Islam. They seek that the new generations, the national and international public, see Saudi Arabia as one of the main sponsors of football or other sports” and, in this way, show that “the fundamental pillars on which the Saudi State was built are changing “, He says.
One of those pillars is oil, which has turned Saudi Arabia into an economic and political power, with the ability to influence nothing more and nothing less than the price of crude oil globally. Another controversial pillar, which the Royal House cemented between the 1980s and the 2000s, is Wahhabism: a rigid interpretation of Islam in all spheres of public and private life.
It has been precisely MBS, since it took over the reins of the country in 2017, who has tried to modernize the image of the kingdom, introducing some reforms, praised by the international community, but considered purely cosmetic or insufficient by NGOs. “The Saudis have changed in many ways,” admits Roberts, but that has been accompanied by a “repression across the political spectrum, under the leadership of MBS: from women fighting for their rights, some of whom are in jail, even the most radical and influential Islamists; including members of the royal family and billionaires.” “MBS wants to monitor whether and the pace of change. There really have been huge changes! But that control threatens” the country’s transformation process, says the professor.
Saudi Arabia Escapes Scrutiny
Despite this repression against any dissident and the brutal methods that the Saudi regime uses – such as hanging prisoners – the sporting events it organizes have not been the target of as much criticism, attacks or calls for boycotts as the Qatar World Cup 2022.
According to Carlos de las Heras, an expert in Sport and Human Rights at Amnesty International (AI) in Spain, “the big difference is that the World Cup has more impact than the Dakar or many other sporting events that take place in Saudi Arabia, such as the circuit of golf”. Even so, the kingdom also does sportswashing through football, says De las Heras, adding several examples: the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, presented on January 3 in Riyadh; the appointment of Leo Messi as tourist ambassador of Saudi Arabia last year; and the Spanish Super Cup, which will be played between January 11 and 15.
“Last year we managed to make room, especially in the sports media, for Amnesty International’s concerns regarding human rights in Saudi Arabia, such as the rights of women, the LGTBI community or the application of the death penalty” , being one of the countries that executes the most people in the world – “about 200 a year”, he says. De las Heras believes that “public opinion knows that human rights are not respected in Saudi Arabia” and that, among Spaniards, there is no less “concern and knowledge” than with respect to Qatar.
The difference is that “from Amnesty International we cannot talk about human rights violations that are directly related to the Super Cup”, as was the case in the World Cup in Qatar. “Yes, we can say that holding the Super Cup in Saudi Arabia is used to whiten its image and offer the world an image that has little to do with reality,” he says, adding that in Saudi Arabia the situation is worse than in Qatar. , for example, for migrant workers, or “the system of male guardianship over women is even more aggressive”.
“The president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales, declared that the Super Cup was going to bring change to Saudi Arabia, especially for women’s rights. Unfortunately, three years after those words and the first edition of the Super Cup was held in that country, women are still second-class citizens”, says De las Heras.