Looking back, so much of it was already there on that night in Diriyah when a storm raged across the desert and Anthony Joshua made history – and £60m – by retaining his world heavyweight title belts. Not just the good, the bad and the ugly of Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions, but the accommodations of those willing to take the money and look the other way.
One moment from the fight in December 2019 lingers more than most: Joshua absorbing the cheers from the young crowd, many of whom were women in western clothes, before averting his gaze upwards towards the kingdom’s ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, and giving a fist-pump to the man who had made it all possible.
It felt disconcerting yet no one was really surprised. A couple of days earlier, Joshua had responded to questions about human rights by insisting the Saudis were “trying to do a good job politically” before adding: “I just came here for the boxing opportunity. I look around and everyone seems pretty happy and chilled. I’ve not seen anyone in a negative light out here, everyone seems to be having a good time.”
Perhaps Joshua was unwilling to delve any deeper for fear that those dissenting whispers would permanently stain his conscience. He was the first global sports star to display a sunny-side-up approach to the kingdom rarely seen outside its own PR campaigns, but far from the last. Only this week Bryson DeChambeau claimed the Saudis were “trying to do good for the world and showcase themselves in a light that hasn’t been seen in a while” by setting up LIV Golf.
Meanwhile, taking it all in was Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, who sported the look of a man whose lottery numbers had just come in on the same day he had hit an 11-team accumulator. “This really feels like a really big moment where everything could change,” he told me. “If they’re going to be investing this kind of money in the sport, we’ve got to be realists.”
It was a comment to make Henry Kissinger purr. But Hearn was merely ahead of the game. That Joshua fight put the world on notice about how serious Saudi Arabia was about sport. The acquisition of Newcastle United, and the hosting of Formula One and high-profile golf events confirmed it.
On Tuesday the Saudi regime flexed their muscles further by striking a deal with the PGA Tour to merge with LIV, backed by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). At the same time they are also throwing impossible sums to attract western players to the Saudi Pro football league.
The question now is what happens next. Saudi Arabia has not officially bid for the 2030 World Cup, but that is only a matter of time. Cricket is also said to be of interest, especially with so many of the population from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. Esports is another major focus – next month it will host Gamers8, which is billed as the world’s largest gaming and esports festival.
As Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions grow, people continue to wonder what lies behind it all. We live in a world that prefers certainty over nuance, simple answers not complex truths. But the following is all true: it is about sportswashing, using sport as a tool of soft power, and improving the lives of its population, 70% of which is under 35, and diversifying its economy, all at the same time.
According to the Saudis, the value of their sports event industry is growing by 8% per year, rising from $2.1bn in 2018 to an estimated $3.3bn by next year. It wants to have more people coming to Saudi Arabia, playing golf and spending their pounds, dollars and euros in the country.
Yet it will not be able to wash away its human rights record that easily. Not when in the last 15 months, it has jailed a woman, Salma al-Shehab, for 34 years for merely following and retweeting dissidents and activists. And also executed 81 people in one day. According to the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, 41 of those killed were Muslims from the Shia minority “who had taken part in anti-government protests in 2011-12, calling for greater political participation”.
That should sicken us all. Yet for too many people sporting success trumps human rights. As Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for responsible statecraft, puts it when asked about Newcastle United’s supporters cheering on their owners: “A lot of sports fans are easily bought off. If somebody buys their team, they support them. Even if it happens to be an authoritarian government, like the Saudis.”
In other words, sportswashing works.
Of course there is hypocrisy here too. Sporting stars and supporters are hammered for taking the Saudi coin, while at the same time few question Britain when it exports billions of pounds in weapons to the country and receives billions of pounds in foreign investment in return.
Meanwhile, the Saudis influence on sport is only going to grow, as Rory McIlroy painfully acknowledged on Wednesday.
“The PIF and the Saudis want to spend money in the game of golf and they are not going to stop,” McIlroy said. “Would you rather have one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds as a partner or an enemy? At the end of the day money talks, and you’d rather have them as a partner.”
As a statement of cold, hard realpolitik it was hard to argue.