Dakar 2020: Saudi Arabia Wants to Use Sport to Improve its Image

Saudi Arabia, home of the Dakar Rally in 2020

After welcoming soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Saudi Arabia made a big move by organizing the Dakar rally for the first time in January 2020.

Saudi Arabia, home to the Dakar Rally for the first time in January 2020 shows the increasing willingness to make a name in the world of sport, with the idea to use them as leverage to improve its image on the stage international.

In recent months, the ultra-conservative kingdom has significantly accelerated its investments in the sports field, where its lap times are clearly lagging behind its regional competitors, the United Arab Emirates and especially Qatar.

In late December, Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates from Juventus Turin walked the lawn of the stadium of the University of King Saud in Ryad for the Italian Super Cup. From January 8 to 12, will come the turn of Lionel Messi, on the occasion of the Spanish Supercup, two months after a first performance by the Argentinian superstar during a friendly match against Brazil.

At the end of the year, the country also hosted boxing star Anthony Joshua, an electric Formula test, an exhibition tennis tournament and wrestling matches.

But one of the biggest blows to date remains the organization, from January 5th to the 17th, of the Dakar, which has been taking place for more than a decade in South America and must remain in the region for the next five years.

In its race for leadership in the Middle East, Ryad has also chosen to make sport a tool of “soft power”, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has engaged the kingdom in a policy of diversification of its resources, and relative openness.

The course of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, January 2020
Plot of the Dakar 2020 rally race in Saudi Arabia from January 5 to 17. (© AFP / Laurence SAUBADU)

Diplomacy, sport and tourism

Case of the critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, controversial military intervention in Yemen or human rights abuses in particular vis-à-vis opponents: the country saw its image, already dull, become downright sulphurous these last years.

This year, at least 187 prisoners were executed, according to an AFP count based on official data, the highest figure in more than 20 years, according to Amnesty International.

And if the Saudi women now have the right to drive, activists have been imprisoned, even tortured, for having mobilized in favour of women’s rights, said NGOs.

“There is a very aggressive policy to host major sporting events, to bring people (…), to spread another image of Saudi Arabia all over the world,” said Carole Gomez, a researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (Iris).

Established from 2015-2016, this “sports diplomacy” is part of a vast program called “Vision 2030” which aims to diversify the resources of the kingdom, to date ultra dependent on oil, recalls -t it.

By investing in sport, and thanks to positive spin-offs for its image, Ryad hopes in particular to give weight to its recent tourist offensive: the country began to issue tourist visas in 2019, with a lot of advertising.

Logo of the Dakar Rally 2020 to be held in Saudi Arabia
Logo of the Dakar 2020 rally at a press conference in Qiddiya, west of Riyadh, on December 16, 2019. (© AFP / Archives / FAYEZ NURELDINE)

” Post card “

From this perspective, the organization of the Dakar, with its images of racing cars sinking into immaculate deserts and disseminated in 190 nations, seems like a boon. “The idea is to praise the beauties of the landscapes, the infrastructures that can accommodate you if you come on a trip, and to make a postcard of Saudi Arabia”, summarizes Carole Gomez.

For Quentin de Pimodan, an expert on the Sunni kingdom at the Research Institute for European and American Studies, no doubt: “The Dakar rally will serve Saudi Arabia as the Tour de France serves France”. “It will enhance the landscapes and heritage when the kingdom opens up to international tourists”.

However, this policy has earned Ryad accusations of “sportwashing” by NGOs and opponents. Before the Italian Super Cup, Jamal Khashoggi’s widow deemed the match’s holding in Ryad “distressing”.

Certain athletes, such as golf stars Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, have also declined a lucrative invitation to take part in a tournament organized in the country.

With regard to the Dakar, several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), have already made their position known. According to them, the prestigious rally will serve as “a communication and diversion operation aimed at making people forget the crimes of the regime”.

The contractual conditions of this Dakar in Saudi Arabia are not known in detail. But, if they are aware of the controversial nature of their choice, the organizers prefer to praise Ryad’s “open will”, when such an event could not have taken place without the reforms wanted by Mohammed Ben Salmane.

“It will be interesting to see how it goes, how it is experienced, what the repercussions and the consequences are,” says Carole Gomez. Will the Saudi Dakar arouse enthusiasm or criticism among competitors and followers? “This is what will allow us to see whether or not it was a false good idea”.

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