World news

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

Qatar, the first Arab country to host a football World Cup seems to have won its bet, a few days before the end of the competition. The event was widely watched locally and around the world, despite calls for a boycott after revelations about the death of more than 6,000 foreign workers on stadium construction sites and the violent repressive policy against minorities.

A winning bet that could inspire its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, whose team also surprised in the selection phase, defeating the Argentines (6 to 2). A feat celebrated by the decree of a public holiday, the next day, in a kingdom where football is very popular.

Saudi Arabia did not wait for confirmation from its Qatari neighbor to invest in sport as a “soft power” tool. Last September, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced that the 2029 Asian Winter Games, a multi-sport winter competition, would be held in the Saudi city of Trojena, within a futuristic complex built in the mountainous desert. . A few weeks earlier, several media relayed the potential Saudi candidacy to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

“Vision 2030” plan

These announcements are in line with the “Vision 2030” plan, a program carried out in 2016 by the ambitious future Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, with the desire to open up the country and deepen its ties with Europe, l Africa and Asia by developing tourism.

The plan also marked the Saudi kingdom’s desire to diversify its economic investments, while income from oil revenues represents almost half of Saudi Arabia’s real gross domestic product and oil reserves are tending to decrease in the decades to come.

Dakar rally, football tournaments, cycling race

Thus, in January 2020, the Saudi kingdom successively hosted the Dakar rally, the Spanish Supercup – a year after the Italian Supercup – and an international golf tournament. A month later, the country organized the first Saudi Tour of cycling, an international multi-stage cycling race. In October 2021, the Saudi investment fund Public investment fund announced the takeover of the English football club Newcastle United at 80% for the sum of 350 million euros.

This summer, the president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, appeared openly alongside Mohammed ben Salmane, during the highly publicized boxing match between the Ukrainian champion, Oleksandr Usyk, and the British boxer Anthony Joshua, in Jeddah.

Saudi investment in sports is further reflected in the invitation of popular football figures like Lionel Messi last May to visit the country to promote it as a tourist destination.

“Sports washing”

“MBS” thus relies on sport as a communication tool to improve the kingdom’s reputation despite the deterioration of its image on the international scene, after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the stalemate of the conflict in Yemen. Another example of this “sportswashing”: the announcement of a women’s football championship organized in the kingdom in February 2020 for ” encourage the participation of women in sport at the local level and will bring greater recognition of the sporting prowess of women “.

An announcement which did not fail to make Amnesty International react, denouncing the fact that a “The will to improve the overall situation of women in Saudi Arabia can only be welcomed if it goes hand in hand with the inclusion of the courageous people who have fought for this change for decades”.

“However, they are still subject to repression by being imprisoned and being tried, while those responsible for their torture in detention remain free”lamented the organization.


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