After Qatar, a new giant of world sport is being born in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has made no secret of it: it wants to have its turn on the international sports scene. With a clearly identified objective: the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The Saudi Minister of Sport, Prince Abdulaziz ben Turki Al-Faisal, told AFP on the sidelines of the heavyweight boxing match between Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk and Briton Anthony Joshua on Saturday 20 August in Jeddah: the Summer Games are Saudi Arabia’s “ultimate goal”.
When? The Gulf state is still being evasive. But its offensive on the market for major sporting events suggests that the Saudis do not want to wait. They could apply for the next edition to be awarded by the IOC: the Summer Games in 2036.
“We are open to discuss with the IOC in the future,” said Abdulaziz ben Turki Al-Faisal. I think Saudi Arabia has shown that it can host such events. Without a doubt, the Olympic Games would be an ultimate goal for us.
Note that Abdulaziz ben Turki Al-Faisal is not only the current Minister of Sports. The prince is also the president of the National Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia has put sport and international sporting events at the top of the list of its economic development strategy, adopted six years ago by Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salmane.
The country has already secured its first major prize: the Asian Games in 2034. Before that, it will host the World Combat Games in 2023, followed by the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games two years later.
Its roadmap also includes a bid for the Asian Football Cup for women in 2026 and for men the following year. And even, surprise, the Asian Winter Games in 2029, an event that Saudi Arabia is considering hosting at NEOM, its massive project for a futuristic and sustainable winter sports complex in the northwest of the country.
Another possibility: the World Cup in 2030. Officially, the Saudis have not put forward a single pawn. But they could make common cause with Egypt, whose candidature projects are no longer a mystery. The Egyptian Minister of Sports, Ashraf Sobhi, recently met with Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, his Saudi counterpart, to discuss the subject. Egypt has also reportedly started discussions with Greece.
The question of human rights? Not a problem, the Saudi minister said. “We are progressing, we are moving towards a better society, towards a better quality of life, a better country for the future, he assured AFP. And the facts show that hosting sporting events benefits our people and benefits these changes in Saudi society.”
A false question, then. At least for the Saudis. But the subject could be viewed from a different angle by the IOC. The Olympic body is regularly criticised for not having written respect for human rights into the obligations of a host city. But Thomas Bach recently told Germany’s Sport Bild magazine: “We are currently in the final phase of discussions on our overall human rights strategy. If the discussions we are currently having with various NGOs go as I hope, we will be able to adopt this strategy in its entirety in the next few weeks.”
Saudi Arabia’s “ultimate goal” of hosting the Olympics could then be in jeopardy, as the country’s record on human rights is so incomplete.
Last week, the UN called for the immediate release of a Saudi student, Salma al-Shehab, sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets critical of the government. “She should never have been arrested and charged for such behaviour,” the international organisation suggested in a statement.