Saudi officials are hoping that hosting international sporting events will bring in investment and tourists as part of its ambitious Vision 2030 plans
From boxing to auto sports and golf and WWE, Saudi Arabia is rapidly taking its place among the world’s most prominent sports venues, an unlikely – but key – part of its greater Saudi Vision 2030 goals.
The kingdom’s newfound role in the sporting world was starkly highlighted earlier in August with news that the hotly anticipated heavyweight rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr is scheduled to take place in Riyadh on December 7.
The announcement – which comes just weeks after a less high-profile bout between Amir Khan and Australia’s Billy Dib in July – signals a momentous change, both for the sport of boxing and for Saudi Arabia, which will now likely enjoy significant additional visibility among global sports fans.
“You have to realise there is a world outside of Cardiff and Madison Square Garden. This event could change boxing forever. You could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport,” boxing promoter Eddie Hearn said. “There is time for change there, and they are trying to make that change through sport.”
An additional benefit highlighted by Hearns is that the event – and others like it – will help dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about the kingdom.
“People think you can’t get into Saudi Arabia, or that women aren’t welcome to the show. Men and women are welcome,” he explained. “If you buy a ticket, you get an automatic visa, and its six hours away.”
For the Saudi government, sports goes far beyond the immediate impact of events for Saudi and international fans. It is an economic move that allows the kingdom to attract foreign investment and business.
This strategy was perhaps best exemplified in January at the Saudi International, the country’s first international golf tournament.
Notably, officials from the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) prepared a significant amount of collateral material and a programme tailored for investors under the umbrella of “golf means business”.
“Golf is a perfect opportunity for us,” Khaled Tash, SAGIA’s deputy governor for marketing and communication, told Arabian Business at the time. “Ninety percent of Fortune 500 CEOs play golf, and 93 percent say that on the golf course they’ve made some of their biggest, most notable business deals.”
Pointing to the wider possibilities, Tash noted that 65,000 people flocked to Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City the same month to watch Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus take on AC Milan in the Italian Supercup. “It’s a historic number in Saudi sports,” he said. “That’s the kind of activation we want to draw the attention of the business community.”
Additionally, hosting sporting events is expected to draw visitors to the kingdom’s various attractions, taking advantage of the country’s newfound openness to foreign visitors. The Formula-E Grand Prix held in December saw visitors from 80 countries among the 60,000 visitors.
For the upcoming 2019 edition of the race – in which 100,000 people are expected – the process has been simplified. Once there, many racegoers will likely use their trip to visit the At-Turaif Unesco world heritage site, which the Diriyah Gate Development Authority has previously said is expected to open its doors to Saudis and foreign visitors in the fourth quarter of the year.
Even smaller, more ‘niche’ sports have a role to play, according to Saudi officials. The Neom mega-project just held its first officially-endorsed sporting events, with the IWWF Neom wakeboard and a FIFA-endorsed beach football tournament.
“As we build the land of the future, we see sports as an integral part of the Neom offering, leveraging our unique pristine land to host international sporting events both for professional and everyday athletes, as well as those who choose to visit and live in Neom,” said CEO Nadhmi Al Nasr.
Keenly aware of the importance sports is playing in the ‘new’ Saudi Arabia, the government has taken significant steps to boost sports. In July, the General Sports Authority announced that it is committing $650m to the sector as part of its Vision 2030 goals.
As part of the assistance, the government will work to further develop infrastructure, increase attendance and diversify the kingdom’s sports offerings. Additionally, 170 active sports clubs are going to receive direct financial support, as well as what officials termed “performance-based” help.
“Sports in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was always a key focus for our government and for our people,” said the president of the General Sports Authority, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal.
“This strategy was designed after months of research done by global experts and we are confident that it will massively impact the governance and professionalism level of our sporting practice in the kingdom in the years to come.”