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Feature Article

Spectacles in the Desert: Sports-washing or Catalyst for Change?

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia as the country prepares to host its inaugural Formula One race in Jiddah, the latest in a series of high-profile sporting events that have shattered the commonly-held image of an austere and reclusive kingdom which shuns the corrupting influence of the West. At the same time, these spectacles have become embroiled in controversy, with concern that they are being used to divert attention from human rights abuses at home, in a phenomenon that has been termed "sports-washing". Is the use of sports and entertainment merely a cynical public relations ploy, or is there more than meets the eye?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

True to their bedouin heritage, royal family members have been pursuing the traditional activities of the desert such as falconry, hunting and horsemanship for as long as anyone remembers. Indeed, many of the companions of the nation's founder, Ibn Saud, who fought in the legendary 1902 battle to retake Riyadh were renowned horsemen, including Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah bin Turki and Fahd bin Ibrahim bin Mishari, who was also an expert marksman. More recently, a grandson of the late King Abdallah was a world-class equestrian rider and Olympian. Abdallah bin Mit'ab, who retired from show-jumping in 2014, had competed at top-level events since the 1990's and even took part in the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, though he failed to reach the finals. His father, a former National Guard chief, was himself well known for breeding pure-bred Arabians at his Janadriyyah ranch.

Other notable racehorse owners have included sons of the current king, Salman - both Fahd and Ahmad, a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner for whom horses were a lifelong passion. Another prince, Khalid bin Abdallah, became one of the most prolific owner-breeders in the world. From his famous Juddmonte Farms, he later expanded his breeding operation worldwide and continued to produce winning thoroughbreds until his death in January 2021. But others have been of a more modern bent, notably Khalid bin Sultan al-Faysal, president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, and Abd al-Aziz bin Turki al-Faysal, now chairman of the Saudi Arabia General Sports Authority. Abd al-Aziz started his racing career when he was 21 in London, and since graduating university there has participated in a number of international races including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 2012, and the GT3 European championship in Portugal. Abd al-Aziz was given the post of Minister of Sports in February, 2020, but clearly his heart is in motor racing. He has been instrumental in bringing Formula One to the Kingdom, and the city of Jiddah is now urgently preparing for its Formula One debut, with the track still under construction ahead of the race in early December.

Hosting a Formula One event would not have been possible without first laying the foundations. Making a credible bid meant having a track record of successfully managing the organization, logistics and administration of an enterprise on this scale, but Saudi has already been host to two other prestigious motor racing events, the Dakar Rally, and the all-electric Formula E series, which paved the way. The Dakar rally was first held in January 2020 as part of a five-year deal, and Formula E is now set for a third edition in February, after the inaugural Dir'iyah E-Prix in 2018. That marked the Kingdom's first foray into major international motorsport competition, a project in which Abd al-Aziz was heavily invested. But it was the crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) who made the unlikely project happen, for without the backing of the royals, none of this would have even been possible.

MbS was keen, as the foundation for his Vision 2030 ambitions, to promote a new outlook for the Kingdom, and the Dir'iyah race, being the first international event held under the 2030 umbrella, was intended to shape impressions and inform momentum for further large-scale spectacles. As such, he put the whole apparatus of state at the disposal of the team making preparations for the E-Prix - the Ministry of Sports, along with the Ministry of Tourism, led the way, but officials from those agencies met frequently with other ministry heads as well, thrashing out the details for everything from visas, to traffic control, to security, which involved the National Guard. Crucially, the project, when it came to life, was far more than a motor race - it represented a societal upheaval. From the mixing of genders to the live entertainment on offer, the so-called "Dir'iyah Season" shattered the mold, intentionally.

Related articles: The Taliban and Royal Support: a Change in Outlook?
Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?
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Past Feature Articles
The Taliban and Royal Support: a Change in Outlook?

Saudi Arabia's nearly complete silence in the wake of the rapid and astonishing collapse of the Afghanistan government is remarkable, given that the Kingdom was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban's control of the country before the 2001 US invasion. Further, the royal family has had controversial dealings with the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida leaders they sheltered in the past, and their involvement with the group is still a matter of ongoing contention. Yet, in light of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's efforts to moderate religious hardliners at home, would the Saudis now prefer to keep a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan at arm's length?

Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman dominates the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that two of his brothers, Abd al-Aziz and Khalid, are both highly accomplished in their own right. But to what extent do their policies and views reflect the influence of the powerful heir to the throne, or indeed, the king?

From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?

As the Kingdom's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is entertained in Washington, another royal is under fire in France for allegedly enslaving his maids, bringing to mind the notorious affair of Princess Hussa bint Salman, the sister of Khalid, who was accused of threatening to murder a contractor working at her Paris apartment. With talk of a "fundamental" transformation of Saudi society, it is an open question whether real change is afoot, or whether it is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

An Imprisoned Princess: Red Lines Crossed or Factional Dispute?

Princess Basmah bint Saud continues to languish in prison, one of a number of high-profile royals imprisoned without charge or "disappeared" on the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Is her case, like that of many others, the consequence of a falling-out with the heir to the throne, or is the real motive an internal family dispute?

The Changing Shape Of Royal Family Politics: Old Rivalries Revisited?

The Al Saud has been riven with internal conflict throughout its varied history. This has typically taken the form of inter-sibling rivalry, as brothers jostle for power and position, whether in the courtyards of the palace or on the battlefield. Will a similar dynamic emerge in the modern era, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in a place of unassailable supremacy?