Skip to main content

2019: Saudi Arabia's year of sportswashing

Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury picked up huge paycheques in Riyadh this year, but others like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy failed to take the bait
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman poses with Anthony Joshua. Tiger Woods, right, turned down a chance to play in the kingdom (Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)

Boxing! Golf! Wrestling! Saudi Arabia has seen it all this year, entertaining crowds of Saudis and lining the pockets of the sports stars involved.

But have these headline events been just a case of "sportswashing" away the kingdom's atrocious human rights record and war in Yemen? Many rights groups and prominent athletes believe so.

Sporting events have become a cornerstone of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's flagship Vision 2030 programme, designed to help diversify Saudi Arabia's economy and draw in tourism and foreign investment.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has detained activists, critics and dissidents in reportedly appalling conditions, restricted the freedoms of its citizens and waged a devastating war in neighbouring Yemen

Earlier this year, Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye that Saudi Arabia was attempting to build an entertainment industry in a bid to improve its international reputation.  

"Saudi Arabia is attempting to change the country’s image in part by developing an entertainment industry and hosting concerts by well-known artists, but no public concert can paper over the dramatic decrease of space for free expression in Saudi Arabia since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince," said Coogle.

While a number of sports personalities have performed in the kingdom this year, and been criticised for doing so, others have outright refused despite large appearance fees.

Middle East Eye takes a look at those who travelled there and those who didn't:

Golf

golf
golf

Riyadh's collaboration with golf's European Tour may be touted as one of the kingdom's greatest sporting success stories: the Saudi International was launched in 2019 and is set to be repeated next year.

Tiger Woods, however, rejected the opportunity to take his swing to Saudi Arabia, declining the $3m appearance fee without stating a reason why.

Rory McIlroy also said that he would not be taking part in the European Tour event next year, set to take place from 30 January until 2 February. 

The four-time major winner, who rejected a speculated $2.5m appearance fee, told the Golf Channel that it wasn’t something that would "excite him" and added that “100 percent there’s a morality to it as well”.

“I’d much rather play in front of big golf fans and play in a tournament that really excites me,” he said.

Some of the game’s biggest names, such as Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, are still set to attend in 2020, however.

Boxing

boxing

British boxer Anthony Joshua faced criticism for his decision to go to Saudi Arabia for his world title rematch against Andy Ruiz earlier this month, marring his resounding victory.

He travelled as part of Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah Season, which the kingdom has described as an “unmissable set of international sports and entertainment events” in a town northwest of Riyadh.

Joshua received over £60m for his controversial appearance at the heavyweight showdown, dubbed the "Clash on the Dunes".

When asked about claims that he was being used to "sportswash" the kingdom's abuses, Joshua claimed that he was just there for the boxing.

“If that was the case, I’d definitely have to say I would be bothered. But my only focus is just the boxing. We looked at all different venues but this was the one – I just want to do a job.”

That didn't stop the Londoner from posing with Saudi Arabia's controversial crown prince for photographs, however.

The controversy surrounding the match has done little to deter sports personalities from visiting the kingdom, as Saudi Arabia is already preparing to host Joshua in a forthcoming bout against Deontay Wilder.

Wrestling

wrestling

Late October saw a bizarre spectacle in Riyadh's King Fahd International Stadium, with a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event that was notable for its pomp, personalities and women's match.

Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans took each other on as the Crown Jewel event's showpiece, with both combatants tearing up on entry. Despite a bottle being thrown at one of the wrestlers as she entered the arena, the crowd bayed their appreciation.

Elsewhere, however, people were less impressed at the performers' choice to wrestle in Saudi Arabia, with their participation slammed by social media users, who described the display as a “smokescreen” masking the plight of local women and argued that the event was actually oppressive, rather than culturally aware.  

It was not clear if Tyson Fury, the British heavyweight boxer, was attempting to be culturally aware when he arrived at the event wearing a traditional Saudi thawb and ghutra, a typically loose white gown worn with a scarf-like head covering.