Saudi splurges on sports PR

Saudi Arabia this week hosts the world’s richest horse race, with $20-million in cash prizes on offer in the latest international sports extravaganza designed to boost its battered global image.

The ultra-conservative kingdom has in recent years invested heavily in sporting events, in a soft power push designed to project a more moderate image and jettison a reputation for rights abuses and the export of hardline ideology.

The Saudi Cup, expected to attract about 10 000 spectators, takes place at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack on February 29 with the main race run over 1 800m of dirt track with a maximum field of 14.

The winner will walk away with $10-million, second place with $3.5 -million and even the 10th place finisher will go home with something.

The Saudi Cup includes another seven races on dirt and turf with a prize purse worth $9.2-million.


“We are taking the first steps on a journey to bring the domestic racing product on a par with our international counterparts,” said Tom Ryan, director of strategy and international racing at the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia.

The event will “increase the sport’s following inside Saudi Arabia, as well as opening up the industry to international horses and connections to make our mark on global racing,” he said.

Saudi journalist Mugbel al-Zabni, who writes for sports daily Arriyadiyah, said the event plays to Saudi culture, in a kingdom where the horse is considered a symbol of its heritage.

The Saudi Cup is set to take place in between its two predecessors as the world’s richest race — the Pegasus World Cup in the United States and the Dubai World Cup — which are scheduled one month either side.

The Pegasus World Cup was the richest in the world in 2018 worth $16-million, surpassing the $12-million Dubai World Cup, but it was only worth $9-million this year.

The big name jockeys at the Saudi Cup include Italian legend Frankie Dettori and Britain’s Ryan Moore.

The Racing Post said that Nicola Currie is one of seven international female jockeys who will make history by becoming the first women to ride in a competitive race in Saudi Arabia.

Currie and her fellow female riders are to compete on Friday in a four -race, points-based challenge with seven male riders, led by Dettori.

“We’re delighted to welcome some of the best jockeys in the business to compete,” the Racing Post quoted Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, as saying.

“Racing routinely sees male and female riders compete on a level playing field and we are proud to continue this great tradition … ”

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sports push is designed to lure international tourists and boost domestic spending as the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) kingpin seeks to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

The kingdom also hosted the Dakar Rally, one of motor racing’s most gruelling adventure rallies, earlier this year as well as the Italian and Spanish super cup finals last year — with the added attraction of football superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Activists accuse Saudi rulers of “sportswashing” — using such events to soften their international image.

And in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30, critics say the sporting drive is aimed at blunting public frustration over an economic downturn and soaring youth unemployment.

Although Saudi women now have the right to drive, campaigners say jailed activists who were behind the push, have faced sexual harassment and torture in detention.

The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and a sweeping crackdown on dissent have also dented the kingdom’s reputation.

“The amount of money spent on those events is … an investment in Saudi Arabia’s PR campaign to improve its image that was tarnished by a number of policy missteps,” said Yasmine Farouk, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Cartoon: A Messi affair in the Barcelona house

An untidy board room has prompted a transfer request from the little man

Top European clubs circle as Messi calls time at Barcelona

The Argentine legend has fallen out with the Catalan club's hierarchy, which has alerted a number of sides in world football

Red Devils have found their superstar

In Bruno Fernandes the club have finally found that talismanic midfield playmaker to build a team around

Benfica, Portugal’s talent factory, proud of its ‘gems’

The club surpassed bitter rivals Sporting Lisbon, cradle of Ronaldo, as the chief talent factory of Portugal

Khashoggi son defends Saudi against critics ‘exploiting’ murder

The son of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has denied a financial settlement with the government, spoke out in defence of...

Ford, on the road to freedom

Cape Town-based radio technical producer Brett Kannemeyer only ever idolised one kind of motor vehicle — Ford
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Entrepreneurs strike Covid gold

Some enterprising people found ways for their ventures to survive the strictest lockdown levels

Ithala backs its embattled chairperson

Roshan Morar is being investigated in connection with KwaZulu-Natal education department backpack sanitiser tender worth R4-million and a batch of face masks that vanished

Inside the illicit trade in West Africa’s oldest artworks

Nok terracottas are proof that an ancient civilisation once existed in Nigeria. Now they are at the centre of a multimillion-dollar, globe-spanning underground industry — and once again, Nigeria is losing out

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza: Liberating Africa from land of liberté

The cultural and political activist is on a quest to bring looted treasures back home
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday