Saudi Arabia Looks to Western Sports to Improve Its Global Image

After the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some accuse the nation of "sportswashing"

Lacey Evans (red) fights against Natalya during the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel pay-per-view in Riyadh on October 31, 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
Lacey Evans (red) fights against Natalya during the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel pay-per-view in Riyadh on October 31, 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
By Bonnie Stiernberg / December 3, 2019 7:29 am

Since the state-directed assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s global image has been in need of a makeover, and as a New York Times piece points out, one way the Saudi government has sought to rehabilitate its reputation is by embracing Western sports and entertainment.

On Halloween, the country hosted a WWE match that featured female wrestlers — historic, even if the women had to wrestle in loose-fitting t-shirts over long sleeves and leggings. But not everyone was convinced the government’s intentions in hosting the match were genuine.

“It’s definitely ‘sportswashing,'” Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, told the Times. “In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are infamous for the oppression of women’s rights and ethnic and racial minority rights. What better way to attempt to change that image than an all-women’s wrestling match?”

As the publication notes, the nation made sports a priority in 2016 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic development program, and their General Sports Authority announced a $650 million investment in July to develop local athletes and attract international events.

“I see all of this more as a way for the government to generate revenues from things other than oil than a genuine effort by the government to grant freedom,” Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.

Human rights group ALQST agrees. “They are trying to cover up their abuses by holding high-profile sporting events and spectacles supported by businesspeople, politicians and sporting figures around the world,” the group said in a statement.

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