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DOUNIAMAG-WRESTLING-SAUDI-CROWN JEWEL Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

Political Pugilism: Understanding Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing ambitions for Joshua vs. Fury

Karim Zidan delves into the anticipated Anthony Joshua vs. Tyson Fury mega fight and how it represents the latest example of Saudi Arabia’s growing sportswashing ambitions.

Tyson Fury isn’t one to waste an opportunity.

Dressed in a traditional Middle Eastern garment known as a thobe, a checkered-red ghotra headdress, as well as a pair of fingerless gloves, the British heavyweight emerged on stage for his professional wrestling debut at the WWE Crown Jewel event in 2019. His appearance delighted the local Saudi crowd, who were thrilled to see the Manchester native dressed in their national attire.

Fury entered the ring to The Isley Brothers hit ‘It’s Your Thing’ and faced down Braun Strowman, who earned the moniker “The Monster Among Men” due to his size—billed at 6 ft 8 and 385 lb—and his in-ring dominance. Fury, who was coming off a win against Otto Wallin, floored Stowman with a big right hand and eventually won his WWE debut by count-out.

The event marked Fury’s first appearance in Saudi Arabia. Now, less than two years later, the WBC titleholder is expected to return to the Middle Eastern kingdom in a bid to unify the heavyweight titles against Anthony Joshua. The event is expected to be one of the biggest fights in boxing history, as well as a blatant example of Saudi’s using sports to leverage political gain.

While Saudi is no stranger to sportswashing—a term used to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record—the kingdom appears to have doubled down on its sports initiatives, placing unprecedented bids to host some of the most prestigious sporting events in the world.

With hundreds of millions spent to entice sports leagues to hold events in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has emerged as an undeniable leader in the sports world, with the Fury vs. Joshua mega fight serving as the crown jewel of the monarchy’s sportswashing ambitions.

Saudi Sportswashing

Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sports. At the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2016, the country set up a Sports Development Fund to support sports clubs and bolstered sports activity in the kingdom. 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 written by an American consulting agency that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country would be free of its heavy reliance on oil.

Since Bin Salman’s policy shift was imposed in 2016, the kingdom has hosted the Race of Champions (ROC) motorsport event, secured a $500 million 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 hosted the December 2019 rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr—arguably the biggest boxing pay-per-view that year—and cost them approximately $100 million.

Saudi’s aggressive golf initiative underscores the kingdom’s determination to host global sporting events that can help bolster its reputation. According to a report by the human rights organization Grant Liberty, the kingdom has spent upwards of $1.5 billion on sports events, including $60m alone on the Saudi Cup, the world’s richest horse-racing event as well as a $650m ten-year deal with Formula One.

In 2021, a Saudi-backed golf venture named the Premier Golf League attempted to lure top golf pros with huge payouts ranging from $30-$50 million. Among those who have received offers include Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka. Faced with an entity with deep pockets that could damage its own league, the PGA Tour threatened to expel top players from the circuit if they attempted to join the Premier Golf League.

AUTO-F1-KSA-PRIX Photo by AMER HILABI/AFP via Getty Images

Furthermore, Saudi has spent $145 million on a three-year deal with the Spanish Football Association and $33 million to host the Saudi Arabian Masters snooker tournament. The kingdom also attempted to purchase the Premier League’s Newcastle United football club for $400 million, though that deal fell through after the Saudi-backed investment group withdrew its bid in July 2020. Saudi has also placed a $180 million sponsorship bid for Real Madrid through the Qiddiya project, which is a tourism entity within the Vision 2030 project, as well as failed attempts to secure $6 million deals with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to promote Saudi tourism.

Leveraging sports for political gain is a long-established tradition with authoritarian regimes. There exists a clear pattern where oppressive rulers have attempted to use sports (and their athletes) as pawns on the political chess board. Sports have long provided opportunities for improved public relations, political gain, and the strategic realization of particular soft-power goals.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in hosting large-scale sports events also fits into the broader Vision 2030 campaign, which seeks to present the country as a modernizing one. It also provides Bin Salman and those in power with a convenient way to divert the average citizen’s attention away from their abuses of power, as well as the kingdom’s aggressive stance on foreign policy in the Middle East region. This includes Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war with Yemen, which has killed over 100,000 people and constitutes what UN leaders consider to be a humanitarian crisis.

The kingdom is also using sports in an attempt to rebrand itself following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was reportedly killed and dismembered with a bone-saw. A recently declassified US intelligence report named Bin Salman as ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. Therefore, it is no surprise that the kingdom has once again secured the biggest boxing event of the year.

A ($150 Million) Heavyweight Showdown

Earlier this week, Sky Sports reported that Saudi Arabia will play host world heavyweight boxing title-unification fight between WBC title holder Tyson Fury and IBF, WBO, WBA and IBO champion Anthony Joshua in August. The reputable news outlet cited Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn, who confirmed that news despite the deal not being finalized.

I think it’s a very bad secret that the fight is happening in Saudi Arabia. It’s the same people we did the deal with for Andy Ruiz; that event was spectacular. As partners they were fantastic as well,” Hearn told Sky Sports television, referencing the Dec. 19, 2019 rematch between Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr., which saw Joshua reclaim his title belts in a town on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh. The showdown marked the first time that the most anticipated boxing event of the year took place in the controversial kingdom.

“We’re very comfortable. Anthony’s comfortable, he knows those people,” Hearn added. “They delivered on every one of their promises last time. We’re ready to go.”

Comfort aside, the primary reason that Saudi Arabia won the bid to host the event was due to a reported site fee that exceeds $150 million, which shatters the record for any site fee for a boxing event. Joshua and Fury will each take home approximately $75 million while the rest will be allocated for expenses, according to ESPN.

Andy Ruiz Jr v Anthony Joshua 2 - Final Press Conference Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The need for a significant site fee was particularly important in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where restrictions and mandatory mandates remain in place to avoid spreading the disease. This applies to sports event, which face seating restrictions, as well as limited ticket sales. However, Saudi’s willingness to pay the unprecedented fee is less about the economics of attendance and gate fees and more about the favorable publicity it can achieve by hosting one of the biggest sporting events of the year.

The proposed Joshua vs. Fury mega fight is perhaps Saudi’s most ambitious attempt at sportswashing. The ridiculous site fee highlight the lengths the Saudi monarchy is willing to go to in order to rebrand themselves following well-publicized human rights atrocities. It also emphasizes the scope of Saudi’s ambitions, which is to rise as a leader within the international sports landscape.

By staging world-class sports events, the Saudi monarchy is betting on the fact that media and fan attention will be on the historic events instead of scrutinizing the regime’s bombardment of Yemen, its state-sanctioned murder of Khashoggi, and its jailing of peaceful activists like Loujain al-Hathloul (Author’s Note: Loujain was released from Saudi prison earlier this year, though she is restricted from leaving the country).

FBL-ASIA-2019-KSA-QAT-FANS Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

While the Joshua vs. Fury bout will likely attract criticism from a handful of media pundits and human rights organizations, much of that scrutiny will be drowned out by the sheer excitement and anticipation from what promises to be one of the biggest events in boxing history—and that is exactly what the Saudi monarchy is banking on.

“This is the biggest fight in boxing and one of the biggest sporting events in the world,” Hearn said. “It will be a major, major win for a country that wants to showcase itself.”

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