As all boxing fans know, this Saturday sees British heavyweight Anthony Joshua square up to the Mexican-American boxer Andy Ruiz Jr in a much-awaited fight.
It’s a re-match (“Joshua v Ruiz II”) following Ruiz’s surprise defeat of Joshua in New York in the summer.
And, in case you didn’t know, it’s a big deal in the boxing world. Boxing has never been shy over promoting its wares, and true to form this bout has been hyped to the max.
But the extra dimension to this face-off is the fact it’s taking place not in Madison Square Garden or the O2 Arena, but in a purpose-built stadium in the suburbs of the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. It’s a “Clash on the Dunes”.
Yes, Saudi Arabia – known as much for its abysmal human rights record as its love of boxing. In fact, while it is absolutely notorious for its human rights abuses – for jailing critics (including women’s rights activists, lawyers and minorities), for carrying out scores of public executions every year, for murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and for conducting a lethally indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen – Saudi Arabia is not known at all for boxing.
Which is perhaps the point. Under the de facto leadership of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been pumping huge amounts of resources into rebranding itself. No longer a “closed” country with a reputation for authoritarian rule, it’s opening itself up, including with the blockbuster stock market flotation of its hugely-profitable national oil company, Aramco.
And sport is clearly a big part of this. Saudi Arabia has been busily luring in a host of sporting stars. Top-flight golfers, tennis players, Formula E drivers, boxers, boxers-turned-wrestlers (Tyson Fury), you name them – they’ve all gone there in the past year. Early 2020 will see a stage of the Paris-Dakar rally take place in Saudi Arabia, as well as Supercopa de España, featuring Spain’s top four football teams, played there.
What’s going on? In a nutshell, we’ve seen a not-very-subtle exercise in “sportswashing”. An attempt to use the glamour of elite sport to rebrand a country and help clean up its extremely tarnished international image.
Ahead of Saturday, we’re being invited to think “Clash on the Dunes”, not “Killing in the Consulate”. To get excited about “Joshua v Ruiz II”, not angry about the continuing sale of UK arms to a country with a bloody record of indiscriminately bombing schools, hospitals and homes in Yemen.
Is it working? Not entirely. Crudely used, sportswashing is the sort of PR that’s always vulnerable to challenge. Since the Riyadh fight was announced, Joshua and fight promoter Eddie Hearn have been asked question after question about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Should they go to a country with such a poor human right record? What about women’s rights? Will gay boxing fans be able to travel there safely? What about Saudi executions? Will journalists be able to freely report in the country?
These are all good questions. And Joshua and Hearn have, like the boxing pros they are, bobbed and weaved, parried and even jabbed back. It was good for boxing to go somewhere new. They can’t be expected to know much about the wider human rights situation, but they do know that women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are improving. And, says Joshua, he “appreciates” Amnesty “voicing an opinion” about the Saudi fight.
To be clear, then, Amnesty’s opinion about this fight is not some prohibitive one where we say there shouldn’t be heavyweight boxing in Saudi Arabia because of its human rights record. Scores of countries have poor human rights records and most host sporting competitions.
No, instead we want to see sportwashing turned back on itself. If the stars themselves speak out about human rights, that can have a powerful effect.
A well-chosen remark or social media post from Joshua or Ruiz about how, for instance, brave Saudi women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul are languishing in jail – this would be an important reminder to the Saudi authorities that their human rights abuses aren’t going unnoticed.
It would show Riyadh’s royals that while petro-dollars can fill a bulging fight purse like the one for Clash on the Dunes, they can’t necessarily guarantee blemish-free coverage of a country with a human rights record as bad as Saudi Arabia’s.
Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK.