September 22 – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has rejected allegations of ‘sportswashing’ as a method of improving the kingdom’s international reputation and says he has every intention of continuing to invest in top-level sport.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) led the takeover of Newcastle United last year while the country’s pro league continues to pay huge sums to lure elite footballers.
“If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we’ll continue doing sportswashing,” Bin Salman said in an interview with Fox News.
“I don’t care [about the term]. I have 1% growth in GDP from sport and I am aiming for another 1.5%. “Call it what you want – we are going to get that 1.5%.”
Saudi Arabia has been criticised for its human rights violations, not least the lack of women’s rights as well as the criminalisation of homosexuality.
Its international standing was severely damaged by the murder in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist who was a prominent critic of the government.
Human rights campaigners say sport is being used by the Saudi authorities to distract from such issues.
“The huge amounts of Saudi money currently sluicing through football and other sports are creating most of the headlines but, behind the drama of these transactions, the Saudi authorities are busily cracking down on human rights,” said Felix Jakens of Amnesty International UK.
“Mohammed bin Salman’s rule has been a truly dark time for human rights in Saudi Arabia and no amount of talk about economic visions or of an expansion into new sporting ventures should be allowed to distract from that fact.”
But Saudi authorities reject those accusations and say investment in sport is a key part of the ‘Vision 2030’ strategy. The country will host the Club World Cup in December – the first time it has staged a major FIFA event – and is expected to bid to host the World Cup in 2030 or 2034.
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