• Easy to forget the reasons why the ground-breaking backdrop for today’s rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr makes it one of the most controversial sporting contests in recent times.
• But for many, the fact Joshua v Ruiz II is merely one of a growing list of sport events to be lured here is of little comfort.
As the sun set beyond the vivid ruins of the ancient city of al-Diriyah, historic birthplace of the first Saudi state, and boxers, their entourages, local dignitaries and members of the media gathered for a pre-fight news conference on the rooftop of a plush hospitality suite on the outskirts of Riyadh this week, it was easy to forget.
Easy to forget the reasons why the ground-breaking backdrop for today’s rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr makes it one of the most controversial sporting contests in recent times. Tempting to focus on what is undoubtedly a compelling sports story as one of Britain’s biggest stars bids to salvage his career, and recover from one of boxing’s greatest ever shocks.
Natural to be impressed by the scale of the vast entertainment complex in which the first heavyweight title fight in the Middle East will be staged, the speed at which the open-air arena for the bout has been built from scratch, and by the extraordinary ambition of the local organisers, who insist putting on such shows is designed to get people more active, boost tourism and drive modernisation.
To avoid asking whether there is anywhere any longer that sport would not be prepared to go. But that, of course, may be the idea.
From Olympics in China to football World Cups in Russia and Qatar, the Europa League final in Azerbaijan, and Formula 1 in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, a host of countries have long been accused of hosting sport to help furnish their image abroad, normalise their regimes, and divert attention from questionable human rights records. As a form of ‘soft power’.
And nor is boxing alone in its particular choice of venue, with Formula E motor-racing, ATP Tour golf, WWE wrestling and the Italian Super Cup all recently being staged in Saudi Arabia as it pumps tens of billions of pounds into the sports sector.
Incredibly, over the next month alone, it will host the Dakar rally, the Spanish Super Cup, its first international tennis event, a leading equestrian festival, and the European Tour’s Saudi International golf tournament, although Rory McIlroy seems to have drawn a line in the sand with this invite, and turned down almost £2m to appear.
But for many, the fact Joshua v Ruiz II is merely one of a growing list of sport events to be lured here is of little comfort.
“The whole world is watching with this one in a way that it hasn’t with previous sporting events there… it is probably the high-water mark in their whole ‘sportswashing’ process,” Amnesty International’s head of campaigns Felix Jakens told me last week at the human rights organisation’s headquarters in London.
“There’s a reason the fight’s happening in Saudi Arabia — the authorities are keen to whitewash — or ‘sportswash’ — their tarnished international reputation. The reason for that reputation is well-deserved. They’ve got an appalling record on LGBT rights, women’s rights, extra-judicial killings, beheadings, the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi last year, and their involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
“We’re not saying Anthony Joshua shouldn’t fight in Saudi Arabia. But while there he should use his public profile to speak about the situation in the country and raise the issue of human rights.”
When I put that to Joshua this week he defended his decision to come here, and insisted he had to focus on the fight, but did say that ‘for the future maybe I can bear a different kind of flag.’
Some will see Joshua as naive when he says he would ‘definitely be bothered’ if he was being used to help improve the image of this country, and point to the £60m he is expected to earn from being here. Others say it is unfair to expect boxing to turn down Saudi Arabia’s staggering riches when the British government has been happy to sell billions of pounds worth of arms to the country in recent years.
Promoter Eddie Hearn took a different approach when asked to defend being here ahead of more established boxing venues, insisting others will come regardless, and that the risks boxers take mean they must be expected to accept such lucrative offers from the world’s leading oil-exporter.
“Our job is to provide life-changing opportunities to our clients who take part in one of the most barbaric and dangerous sports,” he told me. No journalist can possibly tell a fighter where they can’t go to earn money in a sport like this. There are so many hypocrites. You’re here — why are you covering the event?
“Anthony’s going to go down in history here, like ‘The Thriller in Manila’ and ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, two fights that also had similar controversy. He’s going to be a pioneer and change the fact of boxing in the Middle East.”
That sentiment is reinforced by the man heading Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented investment in sports, HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal. In the lavish hospitality lounge overlooking the new boxing arena, he told me staging the fight was all part of the much bigger ‘Vision 2030’ strategy of the country’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who wants to diversify the economy and usher in social change.
“We want to get people more engaged in sport,” he said. “In 2015 just 13% of Saudis took part in sports for half an hour or more each week; we want that to be 40% by 2030. This is all part of a programme designed to get people more active.”
Amid hopes of a first F1 Grand Prix at a brand new circuit in the nearby city of Qiddiya within five years, Prince Abdulaziz also confirmed ambitious plans for a new city-state in the north-west of the country — Neom — where the rules around alcohol and women’s rights would be relaxed to help attract even more sports events, and western fans.
“The sky’s the limit for us in hosting events,” the chairman of the country’s General Sports Authority says. “We have a plan to change the social scene within the kingdom towards what is right, and sport is one of the fields within the 2030 vision that is achieving that goal. Two years ago, women were not allowed into such stadia, but because of reforms they now can. Only a month ago seven women’s football teams took part in a new competition, and if we did not promote sport that change would not have happened. Last month we launched a new tourist visa that only happened because of sporting events. We’re using sport to invite anyone who wants to see what it really is like here and to showcase the country.”
The portrayal of sport as a driver towards social progress is not how Amnesty sees it however.
“That goes against everything we have seen over the past 18 months,” says Jakens. “We’ve documented an unprecedented crackdown on human rights defenders across the country, the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of peaceful activists. Women have only just been given the right to drive but there remain a large number of activists who fought for that pretty basic human right who are now languishing in prison.
“There is a facade of reform but we’re not seeing evidence of any real changes. All over the world, countries are using sport to promote a welcoming picture on the international stage, which often masks a very different reality for ordinary people living in those countries — and when the media circus rolls out of town, things go back to being as bad as they ever were.”
Another lucrative new frontier has emerged in the world of sport. But it may present those tempted to come here with as many quandaries as it does opportunities.