— Published 5 October 2022

In 2029, Asia will be skiing in the desert

The project seemed too big to pass. An insult to common sense. Since Tuesday 4 October, it has become a reality. At a general assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Association of Asian National Olympic Committees (OCA) designated Saudi Arabia as the host country for the Asian Winter Games in 2029.

In less than seven years, the Gulf state, whose name has never appeared on any world list of countries where skiing is possible outdoors, will therefore organise a continental event where 47 snow and ice disciplines will be contested.

Impossible? Obviously, the OCA thinks not. But did it really have a choice?

The continental body was struggling to keep a multi-sport event with a very shaky history on the international calendar. First held in 1986 in Sapporo, the Asian Winter Games were supposed to be held every four years. But after the 2011 edition in Astana/Almaty, Kazakhstan, six years passed before a return to Sapporo in 2017. Since then, there has been a big void due to a lack of candidates.

Saudi Arabia was the only one in the running. It won the bid, as expected. The OCA said in a statement that the decision was taken unanimously. “The deserts and mountains of Saudi Arabia will soon be a playground for winter sports,” the body said, not unhappy to bring back from the wardrobe an event that was threatened to disappear.

On paper, the Saudi project raises questions. It goes in the opposite direction of the trend for major international sports events, where sustainability is elevated to the rank of priority and the recycling of existing equipment is presented as an absolute rule.

In 2029, the Asian Winter Games will be held in Neom, a futuristic megacity being built in the mountainous desert of northwestern Saudi Arabia. The project was launched in 2017. Its cost has never been officially announced, but it is estimated to cost several hundred billion dollars.

The competitions will be held in the Trojena resort, located in the most mountainous area of Neom, with altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 2,600m. According to the official statement, outdoor skiing will be possible there all year round, with temperatures sometimes dropping below zero in winter, but “throughout the year generally below 10 degrees”.

Trojena is scheduled to be completed in 2026. It will be the country’s first outdoor ski resort. For the Asian Winter Games in 2029, competitors will have a mix of natural and artificial snow. According to Neom Project Director Nadhmi al-Nasr, Trojena will be equipped with “the right infrastructure to create a winter atmosphere in the heart of the desert, and to make these Winter Games an unprecedented global event”. Unprecedented, for sure.

The International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) was not aware of the OCA’s decision to entrust a winter event to a country of sand and desert, according to its secretary general, Frenchman Michel Vion. “I’m surprised, we didn’t know anything about it,” he admitted at a press briefing for the 2023 Alpine World Ski Championships in Méribel and Courchevel. But the Asian confederation does not have to answer to the FIS anyway. We don’t know the site, so we mustn’t comment too much now. But it is quite surprising.

With this new catch, Saudi Arabia completes its collection of international sports events. The kingdom is even resolutely posing as a rival to Qatar in the crowded field of diplomacy through sport.

Its capital, Riyadh, has already been chosen to host the Asian Summer Games in 2034, an event where the aquatic events are scheduled to take place in Neom. Saudi Arabia has also been awarded the World Combat Games in 2023, followed by the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2025. The country is currently working on a joint bid with Egypt and Greece for the 2030 World Football Championships.

Following in the footsteps of its Gulf neighbours, led by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, an ultraconservative country that was once not very open to international events, has hosted several world competitions in recent years, including the Dakar Rally and an F1 Grand Prix.