'They want the money': the real reason boxing is going to Saudi Arabia

Sean Ingle in Riyadh
Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

For boxing fans it is one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. But Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight fight against Andy Ruiz Jr is also rapidly becoming the most controversial.

Joshua will earn a career-high fee of about £60m when he faces Ruiz in the ancient Saudi Arabian city of Diriyah, on the outskirts of Riyadh, on Saturday. He insisted this week that the country was “trying to do a good job politically”.

However, human rights groups have reacted with horror and warned the British boxer he is being duped by a regime trying to “sportswash” its international image.

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, said that while they never expected Joshua to be an overnight expert, “if you’re fighting for big money in a country with a human rights record as bad as Saudi Arabia, then you’d be well advised to counter criticism by speaking out about human rights issues”.

“The fight is pure sportswashing and that’s why it’s so important to challenge the Saudi propaganda machine and its increased use of sport to gloss over its abysmal human rights record.”

Jakens added: “Joshua has a record of supporting charities here in Britain and we’d hope he’d be prepared to voice concern for people like the jailed Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.”

Hathloul was among at least a dozen women arrested last year as Saudi Arabia ended a ban on women driving cars, for which many of the detainees had long campaigned.

The Saudi Arabian government says that hosting the “Clash on the Dunes” – the first heavyweight title fight to be staged in the Middle East – is part of an initiative to get more people active, boost living standards, and open up the kingdom to tourists.

Its sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Saud, said “no country is perfect” but Saudi Arabia had made drastic reforms in the past two years, such as allowing women to drive and attend sporting events unaccompanied, as part of its “Vision 2030” plans.

Those plans include bringing sport worth billions of pounds to the kingdom, including Formula E motor racing, European Tour golf and the Spanish Super Cup football.

“We want to host as many events as we can, to feed our strategy and promote diverse sports in the kingdom,” he said. “We’re showcasing that, hopefully, if we do bid for them one day, we can host an Olympics or a football World Cup.

“Around 70% of the population is between 15 and 40 years old. They see what is happening around the world through social media and they want to see it happening in the kingdom.”

But Jakens said the prince’s remarks completely ignored “the ongoing human rights crackdown, with the jailing of peaceful activists and the near-total crushing of Saudi civil society”.

“It’s all well and good the Saudi sports minister smiling for the cameras ahead of a glitzy, multimillion-pound boxing match, but he must know that people are being arrested on a regular basis in Saudi Arabia simply for daring to voice criticism of his government.”

Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, said the fight was just the start of things to come. “They want to make Saudi the home of boxing,” he said. “This really feels like a really big moment where everything could change.

“If they’re going to be investing this kind of money in the sport, we’ve got to be realists. Everyone’s coming and they’re all coming for one reason – they want the money.”