How Saudi Arabia is aiming to be home to the world’s biggest sporting events

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British biker Sam Sunderland and his team celebrate their victory after winning the Dakar Rally 2022, at the end of the last stage between Bisha and Jeddah on Jan. 14, 2022. (AFP)
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Newcastle United fans celebrate the club's recent take over by a Saudi-led consortium during an English Premier League football match on Oct. 17, 2021 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. (AFP)
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Real Madrid players celebrate beating Atletico Madrid for the Spanish Super Cup title on Jan. 12, 2020, at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah. (AFP)
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US biker Mason Klein competes during Stage 7 of the Dakar Rally 2022 between Riyadh city and Dawadmi town on Jan. 9, 2022. (AFP file)
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The peloton passes by ancient Nabataean carved tombs during the Saudi Tour northwestern city of AlUla on Feb. 1, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 21 August 2022

How Saudi Arabia is aiming to be home to the world’s biggest sporting events

  • Usyk and Joshua’s heavyweight bout in Jeddah is only the latest in a long and exciting list
  • Kingdom has set its sights on the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, Asian Games and Asian Winter Games 

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s coastal city of Jeddah was buzzing with excitement yet again on Saturday ahead of one of the biggest boxing rematches in sporting history, between Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk and British fighter Anthony Joshua. 

Such scenes of anticipation are increasingly familiar in Saudi Arabia, as more and more international sporting events are hosted by the Kingdom — a product of the country’s wide-ranging social and economic transformation plan, Vision 2030.

Football match between Saudi Arabia and Australia, part of the 2022 Qatar World Cup Asian Qualifiers, in Jeddah on March 29, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

Last September, Usyk shocked the boxing world when he outclassed Joshua in the first bout, claiming his fourth heavyweight title. Owing to the war in Ukraine, their planned rematch could not take place in the champion’s home country. 

Instead the bout, titled “Rage on the Red Sea,” came to Jeddah.

Oleksandr Usyk, left, and Anthony Joshua ahead of their rematch in Jeddah on Aug. 20, 2022. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

One of the goals of Vision 2030, launched in 2016, was to establish the Kingdom as a regional hub for world-class professional sporting events that would generate jobs for Saudi citizens and enhance overall quality of life. 

Today, sports are taking center stage in the Kingdom’s diversification drive to move the economy away from hydrocarbons and to embrace a whole host of flourishing cultural, entrepreneurial and high-tech industries.

In just a few short years, Saudi Arabia has moved to the forefront, hosting some of the biggest sporting events in the world, providing an additional boost for tourism, hospitality, leisure, and employment, while also strengthening national identity.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) attends the launch of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship in Diriyah, Riyadh, on Nov. 22, 2019 (Saudi Royal Palace photo/ File)

Tourism is one area Saudi Arabia is especially eager to promote with the launch of its Saudi e-visa in 2018. The Kingdom expects to have hosted 100 million tourists by 2030, drawn by a mixture of new luxury resorts and a packed entertainment calendar.

Hosting major sporting events has created new opportunities for partnerships, investments, and sponsorships at every stage in the value chain, while also demonstrating Saudi Arabia’s diversity, inclusivity, and economic potential to a broader international audience.

Toyota's Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi and British co-driver Michael Orr compete during Stage 11 of the Dakar 2022 around Bisha on Jan. 13, 2022. (AFP)

From the silky smooth tarmac of the Formula E track to the epic routes of the Dakar desert race, and the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City to the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, the Kingdom’s sports entertainment infrastructure has improved leaps and bounds.

Saudi Arabia’s successful bid to host the 2034 Asian Games is further proof of the sector’s long-term strategic trajectory — one that is bound up in its overall national development.

In 2018, the Kingdom witnessed a flurry of major sporting events, tournaments, and championships. That year, Britain’s Callum Smith beat compatriot George Groves in Jeddah to win the WBA super-middleweight title and the World Boxing Super Series crown. 

The 2018 Ad Diriyah E-Prix was also one for the books, as the championship was staged in the historic town of Diriyah, the capital of the first Saudi state.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has hosted the Supercoppa Italiana, the expanded Supercopa de Espana, golf’s Saudi International and the $20 million Saudi Cup — the world’s richest horse race. 

Jockey Wigberto Ramos with Emblem Road celebrates after winning the 1800M race Group 1 of the $20 million Saudi Cup in Riyadh on Feb. 26, 2022. (AFP file)

It has also hosted the Saudi International Championship for Parachuting, the “Clash on the Dunes” between Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr., the Diriyah Tennis Cup, and the Battle of the Champions BMX and skateboarding tournament, to name just a few. 

Although Saudi Arabia’s entertainment revolution suffered setbacks in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with events suspended, venues closed, and international travel barred for several months, the entertainment calendar soon returned with a bang.

In 2021, the Kingdom inaugurated its crowning glory — the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix — firmly establishing itself as a leading venue for international sports events.

Drivers compete during the 2022 Saudi Arabia Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022. (AFP)

Built in just eight months, the high-speed circuit on Jeddah’s seafront became the fastest F1 track to have ever been constructed.

The Kingdom has now set its sights on hosting the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2026 and the Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity of NEOM in 2029.

A view of NEOM’s Trojena, a mountain destination in the northwestern Saudi province of Tabuk, which is will soon offer year-round outdoor skiing and adventure sports. (Supplied)

A recent Ernst & Young report found that the value of the sporting events industry in Saudi Arabia is growing 8 percent annually, rising from $2.1 billion in 2018 to an estimated $3.3 billion by 2024. 

The contribution of sport to national GDP grew from $2.4 billion in 2016 to $6.9 billion in 2019 as the number of international events in Saudi Arabia doubled from nine in 2018 to 19 in 2019. 

Of course, the economic dividends are not the only signals of success. The Kingdom’s young athletes have clocked up significant victories, which the whole nation can rightly feel proud of.

Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Tarek Hamdi won silver in karate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Then, earlier this year, Fayik Abdi became the first Saudi to participate in the Winter Olympics, held in Beijing.

Alpine skier Fayik Abdi became the first ever Saudi to participate at the Winter Olympics. (Saudi Olympic Committee)

Having performed well in its fifth FIFA World Cup appearance in Russia in 2018, the Saudi national team qualified for the this winter’s finals in March this year.

Another positive knock-on effect of the growth of sports entertainment has been a general uptake in health and fitness activities among the Saudi population. 

A new survey by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics has revealed that 48.2 percent of people across the country now practice physical and sporting activities for at least 30 minutes a week. 

Women take part in a cross fit class at a gym in Jeddah. (AFP file photo)

This demonstrates a key milestone in creating a healthy, vibrant society in line with Vision 2030’s Quality of Life Objectives. 

Another pillar of the Vision 2030 reform agenda has been to transform the role of women. Saudi Arabia has developed several strategies to include women in sports, including the establishment of a 24-team Women’s Football League in 2020 and the launch of the first Women’s Regional Football League the following year. 

The Saudi women national football team has received a boost with the appointment of veteran German coach Monika Staab as trainer-coach. (Supplied)

Indeed, according to the Saudi Ministry of Sports, female participation in sports has increased by almost 150 percent since 2015. 

“By participating in athletic events, women achieve so much more,” Hala Al-Hamrani, founder of the first female boxing gym in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News. “Tonight’s boxing event is a big deal, but I’m going mainly to watch the first two female undercards in Saudi Arabia.”

On said undercard, a major moment for women’s boxing will see Somali-British prospect Ramla Ali become the first female boxer to feature in an official international event in Saudi Arabia, clashing with Crystal Garcia Nova over an eight-round super-bantamweight contest.

Government support for combat sports has encouraged many women in the Kingdom to train in martial arts. (Supplied/File)

“I think that is a huge step forward because it’s sending a message to the public that the government supports women competing in combat sports, which will in return allow families that were once reluctant to allow their girls to join in classes or different martial arts competitions to reconsider their position,” said Al-Hamrani. 

Such events “help dissipate the idea that women shouldn’t box,” she added. 

“The undercard and the government’s support is a big deal, showing that women’s involvement in the sport in any way is no longer taboo.” 


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Saudi Arabia exits World Cup with newfound confidence

Updated 01 December 2022

Saudi Arabia exits World Cup with newfound confidence

  • With Herve Renard motivating the team in his emblematic white shirt on the sidelines, Saudi Arabia proved tough to beat
  • Performance could also help promote a possible joint bid by Saudi Arabia with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup

LUSAIL, Qatar: From a generational-defining win over Lionel Messi and Argentina to the recent reports that Cristiano Ronaldo could soon be on his way to play soccer in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has caused a sensation at the World Cup.
The Green Falcons have nothing to be ashamed about after being eliminated following a 2-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday.
The second-lowest ranked team in the tournament at No. 51 — one spot behind host Qatar — and ahead of only 61st-ranked Ghana, Saudi Arabia was competitive from start to finish at the first World Cup in the Middle East.
“We did our best. Today it was more difficult for us,” said Hervé Renard, Saudi Arabia’s French coach. “But we don’t have to forget what we did together.”
The Saudis opened with a surprising 2-1 victory over Argentina and also played solidly in a 2-0 loss to Poland before conceding two second-half goals to Mexico to finish last in Group C.
Salem Al-Dawsari, the team’s star No. 10, pulled a goal back in added time, before the Saudi players bent over on the field at the final whistle in prayer and then stood up to applaud their fans.
Strong goalkeeping from Mohammed Al-Owais prevented Mexico from scoring another goal — which could have sent the South Americans through to the round of 16. Instead, it was Argentina and Poland who advanced in the most wide-open group of the tournament.
With Renard motivating the team in his emblematic white shirt on the sidelines, Saudi Arabia proved tough to beat with a team featuring all 26 players based at home.
The fact that none of the Saudis play abroad may have been a surprise factor but the reality is that the country’s best players don’t need to go to Europe for rich contracts when they are paid handsomely in the lucrative Saudi league.
A high-paying contract is exactly what could lure Ronaldo to join six members of the Saudi national team at Al Nassr, one of the country’s leading clubs.
The reports linking Ronaldo with Al Nassr come after the five-time Ballon d’Or winner had his contract terminated by Manchester United.
Saudi-owned Newcastle United is also reportedly in the market for Ronaldo.
But whether Ronaldo goes to a Saudi or Saudi-owned club or not, the country’s national team leaves Qatar with plenty of newfound confidence.
The performance could also help promote a possible joint bid by Saudi Arabia with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup.

Indictments requested for Agnelli and others in Juve scandal

Updated 01 December 2022

Indictments requested for Agnelli and others in Juve scandal

  • Former vice-president Pavel Nedved and CEO Maurizio Arrivabene are also named
  • A date for the preliminary hearing to decide whether to indict and proceed to trial is expected to be announced in the next week

TURIN, Italy: The Turin prosecutor’s office has requested indictments of former Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, 10 other former board members, and the club following an investigation into alleged false accounting.
Former vice president Pavel Nedved and CEO Maurizio Arrivabene — who left the club on Monday when Agnelli and the entire board of directors resigned — are also named, as is former Juventus director of sport Fabio Paratici, who has moved to Tottenham.
A date for the preliminary hearing to decide whether to indict and proceed to trial is expected to be announced in the next week.
Juventus maintains “the accounting treatment adopted in the contested financial statements falls within those allowed by applicable accounting principles,” and it has drawn that conclusion “on the basis of a solid set of opinions by leading legal and accounting professionals.”
In a lengthy statement issued by the club, it added: “Juventus remain convinced that they have always acted correctly and intend to assert their reasons and defend their corporate, economic and sporting interests in all forums.”
Prosecutors have been investigating since last year whether Juventus cashed in on illegal commissions from transfers and loans of players. The case is also exploring if investors were misled with invoices being issued for non-existent transactions to demonstrate income that in turn could be deemed false accounting.
The case involves player contracts, transfers and agent dealings from 2018-20.
At the start of the pandemic, Juventus said 23 players agreed to reduce their salary for four months to help the club through the crisis. But prosecutors claim the players gave up only one month’s salary.
Turin prosecutors have also apparently discovered more secret payments to former player Cristiano Ronaldo that were not reported by the club.
Juventus are listed on the Milan stock exchange, which also opens it to regulatory scrutiny by the CONSOB watchdog. The club CFO, Stefano Cerrato, was caught on phone taps saying that if CONSOB questioned their moves, they would “razzle-dazzle” the regulators with fancy words, according to leaks to Italian media.
Trading in Juventus shares was flat on Thursday, after a negative 1.16 percent close on Wednesday at 0.2738 euros.

Record-breaking England put Pakistan to the sword in first Test

Updated 01 December 2022

Record-breaking England put Pakistan to the sword in first Test

  • Openers Zak Crawley (122) and Ben Duckett (107) set the tone with quick-fire tons against a hapless Pakistan bowling attack
  • It was also the first time four batters scored hundreds on day one of a Test

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: Four England batsmen scored hundreds Thursday as the visitors piled up a record 506-4 on the opening day of the first Test against Pakistan in Rawalpindi.
Openers Zak Crawley (122) and Ben Duckett (107) set the tone with quick-fire tons against a hapless Pakistan bowling attack before Ollie Pope (108) and Harry Brook (101 not out) compounded the hosts’ misery.
Ben Stokes was also not out, on 34, when bad light stopped play, having helped England break a 112-year-old record for the most runs on the first day of a Test — beating Australia’s 494-6 against South Africa at Sydney.
It was also the first time four batters scored hundreds on day one of a Test.
After winning the toss England went straight into “Bazball” mode, the brand of freewheeling, aggressive play taken from the nickname of head coach Brendon McCullum.
England’s fiery batting — with 73 boundaries and three sixes — lifted the gloom over the start, which hung in the balance Wednesday after several of the tourists came down with a mystery virus.
As if the punishment from the top three wasn’t enough, Brook — playing only his second Test — cracked six consecutive boundaries off one over from debutant spinner Saud Shakeel.
He is only the fourth batsman to score six consecutive boundaries in a Test, following West Indians Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan, and Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya.
Brook reached his maiden century off just 80 balls, capping a highly entertaining day for a crowd of 6,000 that included around 150 “Barmy Army” fans.
He added 176 for the fourth wicket with Pope, who fell to pacer Mohammad Ali.
Pakistan fought back briefly in the second session when they dismissed Duckett, Crawley and Joe Root (23) in the space of 53 runs, but that was shortlived.
England have set their sights on even more runs.
“It was obviously a very good wicket to bat on,” said Crawley.
“Hopefully, we can go on tomorrow and get more runs.”
Debutant leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood was the most successful Pakistan bowler with 2-160 on an unresponsive wicket.
“The pitch was similar to the one we had against Australia, but it should have been a bit more supportive,” said Pakistan head coach Saqlain Mushtaq, referring to the Test played earlier this year that yielded 1,187 runs for the loss of just 14 wickets over five days.
Duckett, who hit his maiden hundred after being recalled to the Test side following an absence of six years, was the first to go when he missed a reverse sweep off Mahmood and was trapped leg-before.
West Indian umpire Joel Wilson initially ruled it not out, only to change his decision on Pakistan’s review.
Duckett, who hit 15 boundaries, put on 233 for the first wicket with Crawley — an England record for the first wicket against Pakistan.
It beat the 1962 stand of 198 between openers Geoff Pullar and Bob Barber in Dhaka, then East Pakistan.
Crawley was bowled off a sharp delivery by Haris Rauf in the next over, the Test debutant’s first wicket.
The lanky Crawley hit 21 boundaries in his quickfire 111-ball innings, his third Test hundred.
Former skipper Root also fell leg-before to Mahmood, unsuccessfully challenging the decision.
Crawley showed his intent right from the start, hitting three boundaries off Pakistan fast bowler Naseem Shah’s first over of the match, and bringing up his half-century off just 38 balls.
He could have become the first England batter to score a century before lunch on day one of a Test but was left nine short.
England are on their first Test tour to Pakistan in 17 years.

England score record first-day Test total against Pakistan

Updated 01 December 2022

England score record first-day Test total against Pakistan

  • Four English batsmen scored centuries as the tourists cantered to 506-4 at the close of play
  • Australia in the past scored 494 against South Africa on the first day of a Test in Sydney in 1910

RAWALPINDI: England became the first team to score 500 runs on the opening day of a Test match Thursday, putting Pakistan to the sword in Rawalpindi.

Four English batsmen scored centuries as the tourists cantered to 506-4 at the close of play.

The previous record for runs on the first day was the 494 Australia accumulated against South Africa in Sydney in 1910.

More than 500 runs in a day has only been achieved on four other occasions -- three times by England and once by Sri Lanka -- but never on the opening day of a Test.

The record is the 588 England ran up on day two of a test against India in 1936.

Ben Duckett scored a maiden century to match fellow opener Zak Crawley’s ton at the beginning of the day.

The 28-year-old left-hander pulled Pakistan paceman Haris Rauf for a boundary to reach the three-figure mark, but was out for 107 a few balls later off-spinner Zahid Mahmood.

The milestone for Duckett came in his first Test in six years, after he debuted against Bangladesh in 2016 but was discarded after scoring just 110 runs in four matches.

Earlier, 24-year-old Crawley drove Pakistan pacer Naseem Shah to the cover boundary to reach his third Test century in his 29th match, but not before overturning a leg-before decision via review.

The lanky 1.96-metre (six-foot-five) batsman showed his intent right from the start of the match, hitting three boundaries off Naseem's first over of the day, and bringing up his half-century with another one off spinner Zahid Mahmood.

He narrowly missed the chance to become the first England batsman to score a century before lunch, falling nine short.

England’s robust batting was the ideal start to the Test -- their first in Pakistan in 17 years -- after it hung in the balance Wednesday when several visiting players came down with a mystery virus.

Green Falcons depart the World Cup with bittersweet memories of Lusail Stadium

Updated 01 December 2022

Green Falcons depart the World Cup with bittersweet memories of Lusail Stadium

  • Despite exiting Qatar 2022 at the site of their historic victory over Argentina, the Saudi players and supporters showed why they will be badly missed at the tournament

DOHA: Saudi Arabia will leave this World Cup having developed a love-hate relationship with Lusail Stadium. This striking architectural masterpiece is where their World Cup sprang to life in sensational fashion with that stunning win over Argentina in their opening game, which will be remembered for generations.

Sadly, after losing to Poland in game two, they could not follow up the triumph over Argentina with victory against Mexico in game three, and so it was that at Lusail Stadium on Wednesday their campaign came to a somewhat anticlimactic end.

But both before and after the game the Saudi fans showed why they will be so badly missed during the remainder of the tournament. Despite the defeat, they were in joyous spirits after the game, spilling out onto Lusail Boulevard to celebrate what was their modern footballing coming of age.

Walking — or should that be running — to Lusail Stadium before the game in a mad dash after witnessing Australia make history at Al-Janoub Stadium, one could be forgiven for thinking there were as many fans outside as inside.

Lusail Boulevard was looking resplendent as ever, with the flags of the competing nations flying overhead as tens of thousands of fans mingled and the match got underway.

As I arrived shortly after kick-off, the screams and cheers could be heard some distance from the stadium, leaving one to wonder what exactly was happening and which set of fans were making all the noise. As numerous and vocal as the Saudi fans were, the Mexican fans matched anything they had to offer.

There was so much green inside Lusail that it was hard to know which team had the greatest support because, once again, the atmosphere generated by both sets of fans was incredible.

Despite their win over Argentina and an impressive showing against Poland in defeat, the Green Falcons were under the pump for most of the first half against a Mexican side that clearly meant business. Mexico knew they needed goals to have any hope of advancing and they came out with only one intent.

Missing a host of first-team regulars, victory was always going to be a tall order for Herve Renard’s side and that is exactly how the first half played out. The Green Falcons managed few advances into the forward third of the pitch, at least few that threatened, and so the biggest cheers were reserved for lunging tackles and desperate saves.

Still, at the break the Saudis were still alive. While the score remained 0-0 they stood a chance, and with Salem Al-Dawsari there is always reason to be optimistic.

Lusail Stadium has instantly become an iconic World Cup Stadium. From its stunning, shimmering gold facade to the steep banks of seats in the grandstands that have the near-90,000 fans sitting right on top of the action, it will provide an incredible setting for the final in a little over two weeks.

But tonight, Mexico did to Saudi Arabia what the Saudis did to Argentina on matchday one, scoring two goals in a four-minute spell inside of the opening 10 minutes of the second half that ended the contest and silenced the normally vociferous Saudi fans.

But while those wearing Saudi green had lost their voice, those in Mexican green had found theirs. Beating drums, screaming chants, waving flags; the Mexican fans brought Lusail Stadium to life and the party did not end with the full-time whistle.

The great shame for the rest of the tournament is that both teams were eliminated, because the World Cup has lost two of its most passionate sets of fans.

But as the party continued on Lusail Boulevard long after full time we were reminded that the World Cup is not only about success on the pitch — it is also about the experience, the atmosphere and uniting the world.

As I looked around at the Saudi fans in Mexican hats, and fans from all over the world mingling and sharing the experience, I’m reminded that tonight there truly were no losers.