Thursday, 12th December 2019

A bonanza for sports fans in Saudi Arabia’s soft power games

How quickly the most novel of announcements can become the new normal. The Saudi Press Agency reported on 9 December that, following a ten-year agreement between the General Sports Authority (GSA) and World Snooker, the kingdom would host “for the first time in its history, a world snooker championship”. Never shy of entering a lucrative new market, World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn called the 4-10 October 2020 Saudi Masters championship “a giant leap forward for our sport… For the fans in Saudi Arabia it is a wonderful opportunity to see the best players in the world competing for a huge title.” The £2.5m ($3.3m) prize fund will be contested by 128 players. The CueTracker website lists 43 Saudi players (out of 843 worldwide), but it will be major shock if any of the four Saudis participating next year reach the third round when the 32 top-ranked players join in.

It remains to be seen whether young Saudis can really be galvanized by the complexities of professional snooker. But in sports, the arts and general entertainment, Saudi Arabia is breaking new ground, even if it is the same ground broken by other countries with large, youthful populations decades ago. There is a rapid progress, which can be bewildering to sports fans who are more used to seeing boxing titles being decided at Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas than in pop-up stadiums in Riyadh.

The 7 December Joshua-Ruiz 2 fight was undoubtedly a global event; made for TV, it pulled in Saudis to a purpose-built 15,000-seat stadium (to be pulled down afterwards). It was not a classic boxing audience and, in the run-up, Anthony Joshua was quoted as saying he would “definitely be bothered” if his fight with Andy Ruiz Jr was used to ‘sportswash’ human rights abuses in the kingdom. Money speaks loud in these issues though and Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn (son of Barry) said the GSA’s huge financial commitment left “little option” but to stage the bout in the kingdom.

Two major trends are at play. Firstly, an application of global soft power. Saudi Arabia and its presiding ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) may have been implicated in the Jamal Khashoggi killing, bombing Yemeni civilians and/or imprisoning female driving activists, but Riyadh hopes audiences will be distracted from all that when they see Joshua roll into town to reclaim his title, or WWE wrestling bouts bring some pizzazz to the masses.

Despite denials, there are persistent reports that MBS would also like to take on allies and rivals on the football pitch, by purchasing faltering global giant Manchester United who could compete against Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City and Qatar’s Paris St Germain. Tabloid daily The Sun in October headlined an article Gulf War – Mohammed Bin Salman vs Sheikh Mansour: How Saudi Prince linked to £3bn Man Utd bid compares to Man City owner. It says much for the global football fan mentality that, while Man Utd-supporting staff at GSN’s parent company Cross-border Information Ltd acknowledged deep embarrassment that ‘their’ prospective new owner might be implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, they were still tempted by the billions he would bring to strengthen the team. As oligarchs of dubious wealth and billionaire associates of military dictators have already found, problems back home can be smoothed over by an adoring crowd in the Premier League and other media-friendly pastures. And the bigger the crowd the greater the love.

The second element is the domestic position in the kingdom, where the entertainment boom has been a big factor in cementing what, anecdotal reports at least suggest, is MBS’s popularity among younger Saudis. It was only in August 2017 that, in an early report on the subject, GSN noted that MBS’s “Vision 2030 blueprint for a modernised kingdom offers the prospect of a revolution in public entertainment… That could provide a useful pressure relief valve, even at the risk of outraging conservatives” (GSN 1,042/6).

The question of the extent to which the entertainment boom outrages domestic opinion remains to be answered. There was little apparent fury as millions of Saudis flocked to the General Entertainment Authority’s Riyadh Season in October (GSN 1,091/1). Were there to be votes in Saudi Arabia, these events – where men, women and families mingled freely – would seem to be a bolted-on vote-winner for MBS, who knows he must build popular support for his new social contract, by which he may expect to rule the kingdom for decades to come.

But sources in the kingdom tell GSN their friends – from students to heads of family – continue to express deep concern about the accelerated opening to outside cultural influences and shifts in gender and generational balances. As in boxing, so in life, you can be heading towards a majority points verdict when the sucker punch arrives. For that reason, Saudi security services are still keeping a very close eye on those happy bands of sports fans.

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