On Saturday, Aug. 20, Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua will meet in a highly anticipated rematch for the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles.
Billed as “The Rage on the Red Sea,” the event is set to take place in the port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and marks the kingdom’s latest attempt to use sports to cleanse its authoritarian image in the wake of its latest string of attacks on human rights.
Earlier this week, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University, was given a 34-year prison sentence for using Twitter to follow and retweet dissidents and activists. Al-Shehab is a mother of two young children and was not known as a vocal activist inside the kingdom. She had about 2000 followers on Twitter and was initially expected to serve a three-year sentence. However, an appeals court Monday imposed a sentence of 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban.
The sentence—considered the longest to be brought against a Saudi female activist—was handed down by the kingdom’s special terrorism court, and serves as the latest example of how crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has targeted Twitter users and activists. It also emphasizes the kingdom’s continued oppression of female dissidents despite claims of reform and progress.
Despite the draconian sentencing, several participants in the upcoming Usyk vs. Joshua 2 event have defended their decision to fight in Saudi Arabia. This includes Ramla Ali, the British-Somali fighter who will take part in the first women’s bout in the kingdom.
Ali referred to Saudi Arabia as a “very progressive country” and has framed her position as a historic opportunity to be a “part of change” in the kingdom. “And the fact that they are pushing female sport here and have allowed two girls to compete here for the first time shows how progressive the country is becoming and I am all for that,” Ali told the media this week.
When asked if she believes she was participating in Saudi’s sportswashing campaign, Ali accused detractors of misogyny.
“People who say that are people who just don’t want females to box and that saddens me a little bit,” Ali said. “Why wouldn’t you want women to box and women to have equal opportunities? Comments like that make me really sad. What I have seen here is that women are free to do whatever they want and train alongside men if they want.”
Others such as Joshua opted to dodge the question of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses altogether by claiming he “doesn’t know what sportswashing is.”
“All that allegation stuff, for me, I’m not caught up in any of that stuff,” Joshua said in June in reference to Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated at a Saudi consulate at the alleged behest of Bin Salman. “I’m here to have a good time, mix with the local people, bring entertainment to Saudi.”
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions on high-profile international sports and entertainment events. The strategic investment is part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ masterplan that aims to reduce Saudi’s economic dependence on oil but it also serves to distract from ongoing human rights abuses committed by the kingdom with impunity, as well its ongoing war in Yemen that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis among the worst in the world.
The kingdom’s sports portfolio includes annual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) premium live events, a Formula One Grand Prix, the Saudi Cup horse race, several boxing showdowns, and the LIV professional golf tour financed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The latter placed a renewed spotlight on Saudi’s sportswashing tactics and led to extended mainstream coverage. Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the golf tour, Joshua vs. Usyk II has largely slipped under the radar.
For its part, human rights organization Amnesty International has been critical of the upcoming boxing event, stating it was “no surprise” that yet another major international sports event was set to take place in the kingdom.
“As we said with golfers in the LIV series and with the sale of Newcastle United, we’d like to see high-profile sporting figures speaking out about human rights to break the malign spell of Saudi sportswashing,” said Peter Frankel, economic affairs director at Amnesty International UK. “We would urge Anthony Joshua to use his platform to show solidarity with those who’ve been persecuted under Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping crackdowns.”
As for Oleksandr Usyk, the Ukrainian defending champion is taking part in the upcoming rematch as a leading representative of Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia in February 2022. Usyk joined the Kyiv Territorial Defense shortly following the start of the war but was later persuaded to accept a rematch against Joshua instead.
“I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation from the war,” Usyk said in June. “They were asking me to go, to fight, to fight for the country, fight for your pride and if you’re going to go there, you’re even going to help more for our country.”
While Usyk intends to use this opportunity to raise funds to benefit his besieged homeland, his willingness to fight in country currently waging its own war in the Middle East is questionable at best.
With the most anticipated heavyweight clash of the year, as well as the first female bout in the kingdom’s history, the Usyk vs. Joshua 2 event will be remembered as the latest in a long list of Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing successes.