Saudis sending money down the drain with their charm offensive
Kingdom’s recent investment in boxing, wrestling and horse racing cannot mask abuse of human rights or murder of a journalist
The 50 wrestlers who contested the “Greatest Royal Rumble” in Saudi Arabia last year went home happy. So did the golfers after a “European Tour” event. The fighters Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jnr will also leave convinced of the Kingdom’s charms. The rest of us will take a lot more persuading.
Saudi Arabia’s launch at London’s Fortnum and Mason this week of the world’s richest horse race – the $20million (£16million) Saudi Cup in February – ought to have come with a Three Lions style chant: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, the horse is coming home.” The blurb points out the Darley Arabian stallion accounts for “19 in every 20 thoroughbreds”, and is the progenitor, 24 generations removed, of the wonderful Enable, who will endeavour next month to win a third Prix de l’arc de Triomphe.
Enable’s owner, Khalid Abdullah, is a Saudi prince who also bred Frankel and Dancing Brave. British racing is inextricably fed by the petrodollars of Middle Eastern potentates. Without them, Flat racing would fall in a heap.
So, you can see why the racing industry might be tempted to chase more loot in Riyadh, even as Saudi oil facilities burn, Yemen suffers and egregious human rights abuses continue in the land that will also stage the Joshua-ruiz rematch in December.
Where the line falls on who and who should not be allowed to stage big sporting events has never been resolved. The idea that Britain can sell killing machines to the House of Saud while lecturing golfers, boxers and jockeys who go there would not stand much scrutiny.
But we can at least drop the fawning along with the pretence that this is all about social reform in Saudi and spreading the “values” of sport in a land where, according to Amnesty International, 37 people were executed in a single day in April. Saudi can spend all the money it likes on sport, but it cannot buy our engagement, beyond the simple fact of wanting to know whether Joshua regained his world heavyweight titles.
Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia chairman, is asking us to suspend our critical faculties when he says of the Saudi Cup supermarket dash: “It definitely falls in line with the kind of activities that are now opening up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people and culture to people from all over the world, so that they can come and experience the country first-hand and have the opportunity to see a part of the world that has not been visited as often as we would like. We will also be providing programmes and packages for people who wish to tour Saudi Arabia, whether it is for the archaeology, for nature, or the seas, deserts or mountains – we have everything accounted for.”
The glee in the eyes of those with most to gain affirms sport’s willingness not even to think about the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or the jailing of women’s-rights defenders. As the
ahead of commerce. Raising De Gea’s salary is much cheaper than having to buy a new keeper when his existing contract expires next summer.
Equally, it follows a pattern of United having to overspend to correct past errors (mistakes, which privately they admit to). Alexis Sanchez, who is paid even more than De Gea, was a disastrous signing who is now being subsidised to play for another club. Harry Maguire is an
excellent centre-back and just the sort of person United need to be signing. His £80 million fee, however, came with another error-correction premium.
Clubs who make bad decisions year after year take a long time to put them right. Slowly, expensively, United’s owners are realising that without a well-run and successful first-team operation, the commercial juggernaut is heading for a cliff.