After Qatar, how Saudi Arabia is using sports to achieve its geopolitical goals

Qatar, the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup, appears to have won its bet just days before the end of the competition. Despite calls for a boycott following the deaths of more than 6,000 foreign workers at stadium construction sites and revelations of violent repressive policies against minorities, the event was widely watched locally and around the world.

A winning bet that could inspire its neighbor Saudi Arabia, whose team also defeated the Argentines in the qualifying round (6: 2). A feat marked by the decree of a public holiday the next day in a kingdom where football is very popular.

Saudi Arabia did not wait for approval from its neighbor Qatar to invest in sports as a means of “soft power”. Last September, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced that the 2029 Asian Winter Games, a multi-sport winter event, will be held in a futuristic complex built in the mountainous desert in the Saudi Arabian city of Troyjena. . A few weeks ago, several media outlets suggested Saudi Arabia as a potential candidate to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

“Vision 2030” plan

These announcements are in line with the Vision 2030 plan launched in 2016 by the ambitious future Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who wants to open up and develop the country, deepening its ties with Europe, Africa and Asia. tourism.

The plan also noted the Saudi kingdom’s desire to diversify its economic investments, while oil revenues account for almost half of Saudi Arabia’s real gross domestic product and oil reserves are likely to decline in the coming decades.

Dakar rally, football tournaments, bicycle race

Thus, in January 2020, the Saudi kingdom successively hosted the Dakar Rally, a year after the Italian Super Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and an international golf tournament. A month later, the country organized the Saudi Tour of cycling, an international multi-stage cycling race for the first time. In October 2021, the Saudi Investment Fund Public Investment Fund announced the purchase of 80 percent of the English football club “Newcastle United” for 350 million euros.

This summer, FIFA president Gianni Infantino appeared publicly with Mohammed bin Salman at a highly publicized boxing match in Jeddah between Ukrainian champion Oleksandr Usyk and British boxer Anthony Joshua.

Saudi Arabia’s investment in sports was further reflected in the invitation of famous football figures such as Lionel Messi to visit the country last May to promote the country as a tourist destination.

“Sports wash”

So “MBS” is relying on sports as a communication tool to boost the kingdom’s profile, despite its image on the international stage having deteriorated since the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the stalemate in the conflict in Yemen. Another example of this “sports washing”: the announcement of the women’s football championship organized in the kingdom in February 2020 ” will encourage women’s participation in sports at the local level and lead to greater recognition of women’s sporting prowess. “.

The announcement did not prompt a response from Amnesty International, a “The will to improve the overall situation of women in Saudi Arabia can only be welcomed when it is joined by the courageous people who have been fighting for this change for decades”.

“However, they are still being repressed by arrest and prosecution, while those responsible for torture in custody remain free.”complained of the organization.

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