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Saudi Crown Prince waves away ‘sportswashing’ criticism

Featured image credit: U.S. Department of State

Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has dismissed claims that the Kingdom’s vast investment in sports events and properties represents ‘sportswashing’, stating that he “doesn’t care” about this label so long as it continues to boost GDP.

Speaking to Fox News in his first interview given fully in English, Bin Salman moved to address criticism that Saudi’s investment represents a strategy to deflect attention from the Kingdom’s human rights record.

“If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing,” said Bin Salman, who became Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in 2017 and also serves as Prime Minister.

Asked specifically how he felt about the phrase, Bin Salman said: “I don’t care… I’m aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that 1.5%.”

Saudi’s investment in sports properties is chiefly represented through its ownership of English Premier League football club Newcastle United and its backing of LIV Golf. In June, it was announced that the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) would merge their commercial operations under common ownership, a pact that ended all pending litigation related to the breakaway LIV Golf tour.

However, Saudi has also made concerted inroads into the global sports calendar in recent years, as part of the wider Vision 2030 strategy. The Kingdom added to its sports events portfolio last month after Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City was announced as the host venue for tennis’ Next Gen ATP Finals for the next five years.

FIFA announced in June that all matches during the 2023 Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia will be held in the city of Jeddah. Hosting rights to the tournament were awarded back in February, with the event to be held from December 12-22.

Saudi will host four of the next six editions of football’s Supercoppa Italiana, with the competition to expand to a four-team tournament from next year. Lega Serie A, the governing body of the top division of Italian football, announced the hosting deal in March.

In February, Saudi spelled out its stadium plans for the 2027 Asian Cup after winning hosting rights to the national team football tournament at the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Congress.

In October, Saudi was awarded hosting rights to the 2029 edition of the Asian Winter Games multi-sport event. The Games will take place at Trojena, a planned resort in the under-construction city of Neom. It will be the first edition of the Asian Winter Games to take place in a West Asian city. Riyadh will stage the 2034 Asian Games, it was announced in December 2020.

Bin Salman said this strategy is key to the country’s goal of becoming one of the world’s top 10 tourist destinations. “When you want to diversify an economy you have to work in all sectors: mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, logistics – all this,” he continued.

“Part of it is tourism and if you want to develop tourism part of it is culture, part of it is your sport sector, because you need to create a calendar.”

Bin Salman claims that since he secured power, tourism has significantly increased in importance to the Saudi economy. “We can see tourism used to contribute to Saudi GDP 3%, now it’s 7%,” he said.

“Sport used to be 0.4%, now it’s 1.5%, so it’s economic growth, it’s jobs, it’s a calendar, it’s entertainment, it’s tourism. You can see that now we are ranked No.1 in the Middle East, six years ago we were not in top 10 in the Middle East. We are aiming to get over 100 million visits in 2030, maybe 150 million. Last year we reached almost 40 million visits from Saudi and globally.”

The likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been vocal critics of the Saudi regime, and its use of sportswashing. Commenting on Bin Salman’s interview, Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives, told NBC News: “He’s done more than say he doesn’t care. He’s really endorsed the idea of sportswashing as a way of covering up the country’s very serious human rights abuses. We’ve now heard from the top that this is state policy.”

Worden said sportswashing poses risks because of the construction it requires. “Saudi Arabia has not had the sports infrastructure to host major events,” she added.

“The government is building major stadiums without trade unions to protect migrant workers who are working in deadly heat. Saudi Arabia is trying to buy the halo effect of these major sporting events to wash away its poor international image.”