Boxing fans, it's your job to stop Saudi Arabia sportswashing the ‘Clash on the Dunes’

Ahmed Twaij

Last June, the sporting world was shaken as the underdog Andy Ruiz Jr knocked out the undefeated world heavyweight champion, Anthony Joshua, at Madison Square Garden, the widely-regarded “mecca of boxing.”

Las Vegas, New York or London were all options for the rematch – with promoter Eddie Hearn having his eye on the near 80,000 capacity Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Instead, this Saturday, all eyes will be on a purpose-built venue on the outskirts of Riyadh for one of boxing's biggest ever events and the first heavyweight title contest in the Middle East.

There are many positive sporting reasons as to why the fight is so hotly anticipated. Can the previously undefeated Joshua avenge his first loss? Or can Ruiz keep his fairytale going? Saudi Arabian authorities are looking to bask in such drama. Diriyah Arena, which will hold 15,000 fans, did not exist 10 weeks ago and currently stands a monument to Riyadh’s sporting ambition. Joshua labelled it a new mecca for boxing, despite it being yet to hold a bout.

The major problem is that the bout should instead be clouded by repeated accusations of human rights abuses by the kingdom.

The ongoing war in Yemen, involving a Saudi-led coalition, has so far left a death toll of 100,000 according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data, a monitoring group. The war, coupled with the 2018 murder of Washington-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has brought international outrage and condemnation. Saudi Arabia blamed a “rogue operation” for the killing of Khashoggi, while the CIA is said to have assessed with “medium-to-high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved with the attack. The crown prince has denied involvement.

Inside the country, there have been regular crackdowns on dissent. The execution of Shia cleric Sheikh al-Nimr in 2016 was condemned by human rights groups, as they believed it had more to do with his protests and critics against the government than the terror charges he faced. The arrests of journalists, writers and academics and feminists has played out in the background, with a number of such figures arrested in recent weeks according to right groups who monitor the Kingdom. Some had not expressed dissent for years. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia says it conforms to international law. Such mounting concerns over human rights resulted in Nicki Minaj cancelling a concert in Jeddah earlier this year.

Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia is attempting to improve its image through the use of sports. Crown Prince bin Salman’s Vision 2030 is a nationwide programme seeking to wean the nation of its reliance on oil production. The sports sector is planned to create an extra 40,000 jobs for Saudi Arabia whilst improving the global image of the country. This includes a $650 million investment to develop local talent and attract international events. The country has already held a number of sporting events over the years.

The precipitous focus on western sports, however, suggests an attempt to distract from the grim human rights record and deflect from any negative attention. This tactic of soft-diplomacy dubbed “sportswashing” by Amnesty International as part of a stinging rebuke of this weekend’s rematch. In response to the allegations of “sportswashing” Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Saud, the the chairman of the country’s General Sports Authority, said that the country is committed to change despite Saudi Arabia having made “mistakes”.

Saudi officials having travelled far and wide to lobby nations like the US into supporting Vision 2030. Documents filed by a member of a US consulting firm under America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (Fara) revealed that in 2018 a Saudi delegation held several meetings with members of the sporting world.

There was a meeting with basketball star Kobe Bryant regarding the “development of basketball in Saudi Arabia” and a separate meeting with a delegation from the NBA on the same topic. There was also a meeting with the National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner on developing floor hockey in Saudi Arabia and the Major League Soccer (MLS) commissioner on how the MLS was formed.

On the surface, Saudi Arabia has allowed for some liberal changes within its autocratic monarchy, but women fighting for real change are still in prisons and last month the Saudi Arabia’s state security agency issued an apology after a social media post on one of its accounts categorised feminism as extremism – calling it a mistake. Earlier this year a group of UK MPs issued a report accusing authorities of subjecting female detainees to “to assault, sleep deprivation, threats to life and solitary confinement.” Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied that prisoners face abuse.

This weekend’s “Clash on the Dunes” has been defined as the “biggest heavyweight fight of the century”. As the sporting world, including social media influencers, descend on Saudi Arabia, positive news stories about the kingdom have followed. These serve as a marketing campaign for the country.

When asked about the decision to allow Saudi Arabia to host the fight, Joshua said: “I can’t put on a cape and save the world.” Being such a high-profile fighter, however, with 10 million Instagram followers, Joshua has plastered the Saudi flag across his profile page in posts captioned “Arabian nights”. Although the lucrative $60m value of the fight was always going to be a factor in the sport’s promoters and authorities deciding where it was held.

During Saudi Arabia’s first professional boxing fight in October last year, former British-Yemeni boxing superstar Naseem Hamed took to the mainstage to speak out about Yemen, “Yemen is going through some hard times, please do not forget to pray for Yemen”. With Saudi Arabia one of those controlling who goes in and out of the war-torn nation, “the press struggles to cover the war in Yemen”.

Now that the decision has been made for the Ruiz Jr. vs Joshua fight to take place in Saudi, all of those involved in the fight must take a stand and speak out, to make sure the situation in Yemen, the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the situation facing critics of the Saudi state are not forgotten.

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