An ugly plot to take the spot­light off grim regime

Scottish Daily Mail - - Rugby - IAN HER­BERT

FOR a na­tion which would like you to think it is en­light­ened and in­tel­li­gent these days, Saudi Ara­bia’s plan to cre­ate a play­ground state within its bor­ders, where in­ter­na­tional sport is staged and western laws and rights ap­ply, is grim be­yond be­lief.

In the real Saudi Ara­bia, the usual rules will ap­ply and — un­less there is a seis­mic change ahead — the misog­yny, ca­sual bru­tal­ity and nasty little se­crets of Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man’s regime will go on.

Those who transgress his codes will con­tinue to know that they risk a fate like Ja­mal Khashoggi, the Saudi jour­nal­ist and dis­si­dent who was seized, mur­dered and dis­mem­bered with a bone-saw at his coun­try’s con­sulate in Is­tan­bul just over a year ago.

Money is no ob­ject when it comes to us­ing sport’s ap­peal to cover up hu­man rights abuses like that. The Saudis’ great friends from Abu Dhabi have taught us so. ‘MBS’ — as the Crown Prince likes col­lo­qui­ally to be known — will be sign­ing up public af­fairs ex­perts to help de­velop the Neom city-state: his great con in the desert.

He’ll pay them hand­somely. Saudi sov­er­eign wealth eclipses even the UAE and Qatar’s.

Mer­ci­fully, we have or­gan­i­sa­tions like the Pulitzer Cen­tre to tell the real story about Saudi Ara­bia.

The story of scores of women who have fled slavery and abuse by vi­o­lent hus­bands, broth­ers and fa­thers, in a state where they need men’s per­mis­sion to marry, leave prison or a do­mes­tic abuse shel­ter.

The story of shad­owy sur­veil­lance by men in SUVs and threats against their fam­i­lies, both of which they have en­coun­tered in coun­tries of­fer­ing them asy­lum.

The ter­ri­fy­ing re­al­i­ties for rana and Farah — not their real names — was re­lated by writer Sarah Az­iza in a sear­ing re­port for The New Yorker.

Both women had fled Saudi Ara­bia and sought asy­lum in Ber­lin when the ma­lign threats be­gan — mes­sages on Twit­ter and Snapchat from pro-govern­ment ac­counts, warn­ing them that they’d pay for dis­grac­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of Saudi Ara­bia. In­di­ca­tions from back home that au­thor­i­ties had been in­ter­ro­gat­ing peo­ple as­so­ci­ated with them.

As Khashoggi’s death demon­strated, MBS does not like dis­sent. He hap­pened to feel that the sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in Saudis seek­ing asy­lum af­ter he took power — 175 in 2015 had grown to more than 1,200 by 2017 — con­sti­tuted dis­sent.

‘Be­fore MBS, most Saudis had a gen­eral sense of where the red lines were — you stayed away from them, you would prob­a­bly be safe,’ Ab­dul­lah Alaoudh, a Saudi aca­demic and se­nior fel­low at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity told Az­iza.

‘But there is no way to know where the red line is any more. The mes­sage from the govern­ment now is — you don’t even have to be po­lit­i­cal to be tar­geted. Just be­ing slightly out­spo­ken, even just on so­cial or re­li­gious is­sues, could make you a tar­get, and you could be harmed.’

It is hard to be­lieve that eru­dite, en­light­ened An­thony Joshua is not aware of all this. But the money has talked — just as it has for Sky Sports, who are charg­ing a record £25 fee to view Satur­day’s fight.

They have re­jected the stand taken by Span­ish state broad­caster RTVE which, on hu­man rights grounds, has re­fused to bid for the Span­ish foot­ball Su­per Cup which the Saudis have paid mil­lions to stage. It’s al­ways been this way. When en­ter­tain­ment cap­i­tal Sun City was cre­ated within apartheid-era South Africa, the United Na­tions in­tro­duced a boy­cott of the place. A num­ber of big name artists — El­ton John, Queen, rod Ste­wart — per­formed there any­way.

Joshua’s pro­moter Ed­die Hearn has pleaded ig­no­rance about bring­ing his man here.

Asked by the As­so­ci­ated Press ear­lier this year if there was any­where he would not take Joshua — North Korea per­haps? — he did not seem re­motely aware of how bad it all looked.

‘I don’t be­lieve there’s been a de­mand for a fight in North Korea,’ replied Hearn. ‘I think that’s a funny old ques­tion.’

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