Saudi Arabia Has Turned Sports Into A Public Relations Machine

Image by Angelica Alzona/GMG
Image by Angelica Alzona/GMG
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In November 2016, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia decided to start investing in sports. Its government ordered the General Authority of Sports to create a Sports Development Fund, which bolstered sports activity in the country and provided financial assistance to clubs across the nation. The objectives of the fund included an infusion of capital to build new facilities, contributions to the privatization of sports clubs, and efforts to attract and promote international sports events. All told, the gambit was expected to add 40,000 new jobs to the economy.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has played a limited role in international sports. Apart from the attention paid towards Saudi soccer clubs, there was minimal investment in Olympic sports or in female participation in such activities. Given that Saudi Arabia has historically opposed such advancements in athletics, 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 limitations on all forms of entertainment.

The man behind the country’s newfound interest in sports is Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who had yet to be elevated to Crown Prince when he commenced these changes in 2016. At the time, Bin Salman, who is just 31 years old, was deputy crown prince, defense minister, and president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, a role he had maintained since April 2015. Prior to his decision to begin investing in Saudi sports, the young politician had unveiled “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.

Vision 2030 was unveiled in April of 2016, and by November Bin Salman had turned his attention toward strengthening the education system, expanding participation in the workforce, and investing in the entertainment sector. As a result, the Saudi Arabian government has begun to play host to major sporting events previously unseen in the Gulf state.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia hosted its first international motorsport event, the two-day Race of Champions (ROC). The event took place at the King Fahd international stadium in Riyadh, which has a capacity of 75,000 seats. ROC President Fredrik Johnsson explained the decision to host the event in Saudi Arabia by claiming the “forward-thinking” ROC is “an event perfectly suited to Saudi Arabia, which is emerging as a modern sports market on the global stage.”

Less than three months following the ROC, Saudi Arabia will host its first international boxing event when the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) Cruiserweight Final will take place in Jeddah. The event, which will be held in May 2018, will serve as the conclusion of the first season of the WBSS and the winner will be presented with the inaugural Muhammad Ali trophy.

Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in sports fits into the broader Vision 2030 campaign, which seeks to present the country as a quickly 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. Vision 2030 was revealed just three months after the Saudi royal family executed 47 dissidents on charges of terrorism; the new investment in sports comes as Saudi Arabia wages a costly and brutal war with Yemen. Even the decision to allow women to attend sports events in particular stadiums, which has been celebrated by Western mainstream media, is designed to present a superficial image of progressive Islam.

The admittance of women into sporting events is an illuminating case study in how the public, progressive face that Bin Salman tries to present does not reflect what is actually going on in his country.

When Mohammed Bin Salman ascended to the role of Crown Prince in mid-2017, he began to cultivate a group of young and ambitious members of the Al-Saud family, and elevated them to positions of power to better serve his plans for the kingdom. One of the more publicized appointments was that of Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, who became the first female president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports.

The princess’ appointment came around the same time women were allowed entry into soccer stadiums and a ruling that will soon allow women to drive was passed. All of these changes fall under Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s plans for social and economic transformation in Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, January 12, thousands of women flocked to Jeddah soccer stadium to attend a Saudi Premier League game between Al Ahli and Al Batin. Social media came alive with pictures of the revamped stadiums, which included brand new women’s lavatories and a women-only smoking section.

“I am proud and extremely happy for this development and for the kingdom’s moves to catch up with civilized measures adopted by many countries,” Ruwayda Ali Qassem, a Jeddah resident, told AFP. “This is a historic day which culminates ongoing fundamental changes.

These select policies appear liberal and reform-minded, but they are also superficial measures that fail to address the systematic oppression still facing women in the kingdom. What’s often left out of the glowing coverage of Saudi women being allowed into soccer stadiums is that there are actually only three designated stadiums in the kingdom that they are allowed to enter. Women being allowed to drive cars is progressive step, but it means very little so long as the guardianship system—which keeps women at the mercy of their spouses or male relatives who can decide if they are ever allowed to travel, study abroad, or access health care—remains firmly in place. It does.

As of 2016, Saudi Arabia ranked 141st out of 144 nations included in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap report. Allowing women to attend (some) soccer matches and drive cars will not improve the country’s status by much, particularly when equal rights and an end to the guardianship system remain a distant dream. The Saudi Arabian government even monitors women using electronic systems that track cross-border movements, allowing husbands to be notified if their wives leave the country. Even in 2017, the supposed year of dramatic change in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women fleeing the country were forcibly returned by their relatives and placed in detention. These facts remain undisputed, and yet mainstream media entities such as the BBC continue to produce headlines such as “Saudi Arabia: How women are making football history.”

It is essential to understand that the selective freedoms that Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has given Saudi women serves to benefit the Crown Prince’s political agenda first and foremost. Anything else is an added bonus.

Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has presented himself as a reformist in a country that has long emphasized the exportation of extremist teachings. His stated vision is to restore Saudi Arabia to a “country of moderate Islam that is tolerant of all religions and to the world.” This is the sort of rhetoric that elites want to hear, but again it hasn’t been matched by commensurate action. Once he was elevated to the role of Crown Prince in June 2017, the prince consolidated his power using a series of policies previously unheard of in the Gulf state. This began with the reported arrests of 11 princes from the House of Saud on corruption charges—a warning that even Saudi princes were not above the law.

The prince followed up his controversial arrests by stoking conflict with the Iranian regime and extending the war with Yemen, which presently constitutes what the United Nations considers to be a humanitarian crisis. His aggressive stance on domestic and foreign politics, as well as his devil-may-care attitude towards the country’s longstanding hyper-conservatism, indicate that he is more of a hardliner than a reformist.

With this in mind, it’s easier to see Bin Salman’s endorsement of changes to the entertainment sector, including economic infusions in various sports and increased participation from female athletes, for what they really are: an attempt to enhance his personal image abroad.

The Saudi government is aware of the domestic benefits and international prestige that can be reaped from a strong sports culture, and are willing to go to unprecedented lengths to seize those benefits. The decision to invest in sports facilities shows the country’s awareness of the benefits of controlled social change, and the decision to host international events highlights Mohammed Bin Salman’s interest in using sports as a strategic tool to enhance the country’s reputation on an international level.

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. Nothing makes an undemocratic regime appear progressive and palatable quite like a stadium full of adoring fans cheering on athletes from all over the world.

The Russian Federation has laid out the blueprint that Bin Salman is currently following. With Vladimir Putin at the helm, Russia won the rights to host both the 2014 Winter Games and the 2018 World Cup. Though faced with sanctions imposed by the United States and difficult economic circumstances following a recession in 2014, Russia’s upcoming World Cup is set to be the most expensive in the event’s very expensive history, with a budget that could total $40 billion.

Despite the potential long-term consequences of such a risky investment in a single event, it is a cost Putin is willing to pay to ensure his nation claims a spot for itself amongst the international elite. If Bin Salman’s plans for promoting sports come to fruition, Saudi Arabia might soon be counting itself among those countries whose international prestige provide much needed cover for their authoritarian impulses.