Navigating the Geopolitics of Sport: Saudi Ambitions and Global Gaze
Behind the ‘Sportswashing’ Veil
In a world where sport isn’t just sport and geopolitics often intertwines with the trajectory of a football or the backswing of a golf club, Saudi Arabia stands at a compelling crossroads. Mohammed bin Salman, the nation’s crown prince, finds himself in the centre of this fascinating web. One where the pursuit of a strengthened international image, often viewed through the lens of ‘sportswashing’, intersects with the actual ambitions and aspirations of a nation.
His rather candid admission to Fox News about his nonchalance regarding the term “sportswashing” was intriguing.
“If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we’ll continue doing sportswashing,” he proclaimed.
A Strategy or A Distraction?
For Saudi Arabia, sport is more than just a game. With their Public Investment Fund (PIF) diving deep into the heart of football by taking over Newcastle United and initiating LIV Golf, the boundaries between passion, business, and image-building blur.
Yet, as the nation accelerates its sports investments, critics are quick to juxtapose these ventures with the stark realities on the ground – notably human rights abuses, restrictions on free speech, and the infamous killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Critics argue this surge into sport is a mere distraction from these controversies. Saudi authorities, however, frame this as an essential chapter of their ‘Vision 2030’ blueprint.
A Tapestry of Influence
Unveiling the layers, one can see Saudi Arabia’s sports ambitions intricately woven. The green and white third kit of Newcastle, reminiscent of the Saudi national team’s attire, was not just a piece of cloth. Amnesty International saw it as a statement, a testament to the reach and resonance of ‘sportswashing’.
With the Club World Cup on its shores and speculations rife about a potential bid for the 2030 or 2034 World Cup, Saudi Arabia seems to be setting the stage for a grand sporting narrative.
And then there’s the realm of club football. PIF’s grasp over leading Saudi clubs, manifesting in high-calibre signings like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, portrays a kingdom hungry for footballing prowess.
The Larger Sporting Landscape
It’s not just football. The inauguration of the LIV Golf series and F1’s pivotal decision to race in Saudi are indicators of the nation’s growing global sports footprint. Yet, amidst the roar of the engines and the spectacle of the tracks, echoes of dissent have been discernible. Lewis Hamilton’s discomfiture about racing in the nation until the human rights record improves is a testament to the complex matrix of sport, politics, and ethics.
Boxing and tennis too haven’t remained untouched. While Anthony Joshua voiced his sole concentration on boxing amidst geopolitical controversies, tennis prepares to mark its footprint in Jeddah, heralding a new dawn.
The Road Ahead
In a world where every serve, punch, and goal isn’t just about the game but is a statement, an assertion, or a strategy, Saudi Arabia’s sports journey remains under the global scanner. The question that looms is whether this is merely about crafting a pristine image, or is it the genuine aspiration of a nation to etch its name on the global sports map.
Whatever the conclusion, the lines between sport, strategy, and scrutiny are increasingly becoming indistinguishable.