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Mon Sep 2, 2019, 11:55 AM

Sportswashing: how Saudi Arabia lobbies the US's largest sports bodies

Source: The Guardian

Sportswashing: how Saudi Arabia lobbies the US's largest sports bodies

Saudi Arabia’s relatively sudden interest in sports can be construed as a soft power tactic to help distract from the kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses and the Yemen crisis

Karim Zidan
Mon 2 Sep 2019 09.00 BST Last modified on Mon 2 Sep 2019 09.13 BST

Last month, the foreign registration documentation for Saudi Arabia’s 2018 lobbying campaign in the United States were made available online. The documents shed light on the kingdom’s aggressive sportswashing strategy that included meetings and business calls with the commissioners for Major League Soccer (MLS), the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), as well as officials from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and the Los Angeles Olympic Committee.

Saudi Arabia’s strategic interest in sports and entertainment events dates back to November 2016 when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the kingdom’s General Sports Authority – the government body responsible for the development of sports in the kingdom – to set up a Sports Development Fund that bolstered sports activity in the country. The objectives of the fund were to privatize football clubs to increase participation, promote new sports events, and add 40,000 jobs to the economic marketplace as part of Vision 2030, a development proposal that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country would be free of its heavy dependence on oil.

Given that Saudi Arabia has historically opposed Western-influenced sports and entertainment events, these recent developments seemed to represent a significant change in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation’s policies and a pivot away from the kingdom’s longstanding societal limitations.

Since Bin Salman’s policy shift was imposed in 2016, the kingdom has hosted the Race of Champions (ROC) motorsport event, secured a long-term deal with the WWE that includes multiple shows a year, hosted boxing events headlined by stars like Amir Khan, hosted a PGA European Tour golf event, and even secured the rights to host the December rematch between former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, arguably the biggest boxing pay-per-view of the year.

While Saudi Arabia’s pivot towards a more liberal society is a welcome change for the conservative kingdom, it also raises important questions about the government’s relatively sudden interest in sports and whether it could be construed as a soft power tactic to help distract from the kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses and the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen – a war that killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and has left 14m people at risk of starvation.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/sep/02/sportswashing-saudi-arabia-sports-mohammed-bin-salman

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