Dakar Rally: sports washing par excellence

January 15, 2020

AlKhaleej Today on 14 January 2020 carries an interesting post by Anthony Harwood, a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail, entitled: Dakar Rally opens dark new chapter in Saudi sportswashing“. Here some long excerpts listing some of the many sports events which Saudi Arabia has been buying, but with the main focus on the Dakar Rally. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/04/dakar-rally-starts-on-5-january-in-jeddah-but-hrds-in-jail/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/13/saudi-arabia-finds-that-celebrities-are-easier-to-buy-than-human-rights-ngos/].

..But regrettable also that the organisers of the race, France’s Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), have chosen not to say or do anything which might upset the host country, Saudi Arabia, and spark headlines around the world.  There was once a time when campaigners would call on sportsmen and women to boycott Riyadh when asked to play there, much as happened when “rebel tours” of South Africa were announced during the apartheid era. But that changed when the desert kingdom began offering huge sums of money that footballers, wrestlers, tennis players, snooker players and golfers were finding hard to turn down. 

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International realised that calling for a boycott was never going to work when the lure of the Saudi riyal was so great and promoters could point to how companies like House of Fraser, Gucci, Chanel and Starbucks are already trading in Saudi Arabia, so what’s all the fuss?  Instead, campaign groups asked that anyone who went to Riyadh spoke out while they were there about the country’s appalling human rights abuses….

As Ines Osman, director of the MENA Rights Group, said: “These activists, and countless others, have paid the price of their freedom for the state’s ‘social change’ narrative. Competitors and sports fans must speak up, as silence allows Riyadh’s soft power tactics to wash away human rights abuses, shutting down the voices of Saudi human rights defenders.” 

The term ‘sportswashing’ has entered the lexicon as a way to describe how countries such as Saudi Arabia use sport to wash away the stains on their reputation and pretend everything in the garden is rosy.  To do this they lure sports stars and celebrities to their country with huge sums of money; only on Friday the manager of Barcelona, Ernesto Valverde, admitted that the only reason the Spanish Super Cup was being hosted in Riyadh was because of the money on offer.  Likewise, the British boxer, Anthony Joshua, got $86m to agree to last month’s world heavyweight title fight with Andy Ruiz Jnr in Saudi Arabia. 

..In November the Dakar director, David Castera, claimed there had been hesitation before choosing Saudi Arabia for the rally, but didn’t elaborate on what the “many guarantees” were which had held things up.  He also noted that Dakar was not the first sporting event to be held in Saudi, which of course is true, and is why the Saudis continue to spend a fortune attracting high-profile competitors: so it becomes normalised. 

The Saudi authorities have said they hope broadcasts of the race – showing the country’s beautiful expanses of desert, mountains and coastline – will provide a boost to its tourist industry. The sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, said accusations of sportswashing are wrong because his country was always criticised for “not opening up to the world”. What a crass thing to say. By opening up, we don’t mean gawping at the Saudi desert.  By opening up we mean having a transparent judicial system where a trial which allows the organisers of Khashoggi’s murder to escape punishment can be scrutinised.  By opening up we mean allowing a cross-party group of British members of parliament access to women’s rights activists detained in Saudi Arabia, as well as their guards, following claims they have been tortured and sexually assaulted while in jail.  By opening up we mean allowing an examination of how the Saudi-led coalition have carried out unlawful attacks in Yemen, restricted access to humanitarian aid, carried out arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and child recruitment. 

It’s sad that not one of those drivers from 62 nations had so much as a pink armband between them when they set off from Jeddah on 5 January on what the Saudi media proudly call ‘Chapter 3’ in the race’s history.  If they don’t find their voices by the time they reach Riyadh on Friday – and I’m not holding my breath – the start of a five year contract to hold the race in Saudi Arabia will actually mark the most shameful stretch of the Dakar Rally’s history. 

For more of my posts on sports washing: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/sports-washing/

https://alkhaleejtoday.co/saudi-arabia/21704/Dakar-Rally-opens-dark-new-chapter-in-Saudi-sportswashing.html

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