Sport is a central part of the Neom project, with an entire section on the Neom website devoted to it.
“Sport is a tool for positive social change like none other,” it reads. “It has the ability to break down social barriers greater than governments and inspire a completely inclusive society. NEOM will be a global hub for sport, uniting its communities, shaping its healthy lifestyle and contributing to its innovative economy.”
There is a certain irony in a regime that routinely locks up, tortures and executes anyone even considering making “positive social change” making this point, as there also is with the promise of it having “the ability to break down social barriers”, such as the barriers put up between men and women, Sunni and Shi’a and rich and poor by the kingdom’s theocratic dictators.
But there is a reason for Neom boasting of its sports agenda – something termed by many opponents of the regime as “sportswashing”. In an article on Bloomberg.com, academic Madawi Al-Rasheed said: “It’s a soft-power strategy to project a kinder face… They’re using it to cover up some serious shortcomings.”
In an attempt to frame Saudi Arabia as a major sporting destination, the regime, led by de facto ruler crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), wants the world’s investors and tourists to be distracted away from it’s brutally repressive regime, bloody war in Yemen and persecution of dissidents around the world, not to mention the Huwaiti tribespeople banished from their land to make way for Neom.
Neom, being a key part of MBS’s VIsion 2030 strategy, an attempt to open Saudi Arabia up to investment away from its reliance on oil, puts sports centre stage. This follows Saudi attempts to bring major sporting events to the kingdom in recent years, with mixed results.
Early 2020 saw the Dakar Rally, a motorsports event in the Saudi desert, and the “Clash of the Dunes”, an attempt to attract an international audience to a heavyweight boxing event. No expense is spared in this sportswashing. The “Royal Cup” horse racing event had a prize worth $20 million.
But many have seen through the facade. When the Royal Spanish Football Federation allowed Real Madrid, Barcelona and others to compete in matches in Saudi Arabia, Spain’s state TV refused to show it, noting the kingdom’s appalling human rights record. Similarly, golfing legend Tiger Woods refused to be a part of the Saudi International tournament, despite being offered $3 million to attend, while fellow golfer Rory McIlroy said “morality” was one of the reasons he refused to take part.
Those invited to take part in Neom’s sporting events will no doubt be offered the opportunity to win huge cash prizes and attendance payments. But the reason for the apparent generosity of the regime is that those sportspeople will be used as propaganda to show the world how “normal” the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia is.
They would be playing on land stolen from the Huwaiti tribespeople, who have lived there for far longer than the state of Saudi Arabia has existed and who are now being forced from their land with a mixture of bribes and terror.
They would be giving cover to a regime that routinely amputates limbs from as part of what passes for the Saudi criminal justice system, for accusations of crimes as minor as theft. And they would be creating the illusion of a modern, welcoming state, and distracting the world from the horrors of one of the most brutal regimes on the planet.