Striking silver

Saudi Arabia vs Qatar in the sports arena

Saudi Arabia lost its bid to host the 2030 Asian Games to rival Qatar, but the kingdom was awarded the right to organise the next version in 2034 after a deal brokered by the Olympic Council of Asia on Wednesday.

The vote, held in Oman, was repeatedly delayed by problems with the electronic voting system as many delegates had to participate remotely as a result of the coronavirus travel restrictions. Saudi Arabia has asked the OCA to halt the e-voting system due to “the possibility of technical fraud”. 26 countries that were present on the ground in Muscat voted the old fashioned way using a ballot box, while the remaining 19 countries voted electronically.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been locked in a bitter political dispute since 2017 when the kingdom, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, declared a wide-ranging boycott against the gas-rich state. Kuwait, which has been playing a mediation role, announced earlier this month that the two sides had made progress towards a resolution.

Although both sides have shown sportsmanship by wishing each other luck ahead of the vote, the race to host the Asian Games was poised to be the latest battleground of the Riyadh-Doha rivalry. OCA chief Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad of Kuwait has sought to defuse the situation by avoiding a vote. Instead, he tried to persuade one city to hold the 2030 Games while the other stage the following edition in 2034.

In the end, a vote was held to pick the host of the 2030 Games with the understanding that the other candidate would get the following event. “Today the Gulf is united and everyone came out as winners,” Sheikh Ahmad said, thanking both Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as hosts Oman for helping reach that deal.

It was notable that Sheikh Ahmad, a well-connected figure in world sports who has been linked to corruption, has managed to sponsor this arrangement because the Saudis have previously accused him of using his wheeling and dealing skills in favour of Qatar. Royal court adviser Turki al-Alsheikh, former head of the kingdom’s sports authority, even likened him to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in 2017.

Failing to host the event on 2030, the year associated with the Saudi reform plan “Vision 2030,” has to sting considering all the symbolism around that date. Current Saudi sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal on Wednesday did not hide his disappointment but said the four extra years would be useful to train more athletes. “Delaying hosting the Asian Games from 2030 to 2034 gives us more time to prepare a larger team of athletes to compete and rise to podiums,” he said.

The Asian Games will next be held in Hangzhou, China, in 2022 and Aichi-Nagoya, Japan, in 2026. 

I have written last February about Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to become a major player in sports. The kingdom has hosted several events for wrestling, boxing, golf and the football super cups of both Italy and Spain in recent years. The coronavirus has put these ambitions on hold, but the country is set to return to action with its first Formula One race in Jeddah next November. The government has also launched a company to acquire and manage sports content rights.

The Saudis would tell you that pursuing these ambitions is about the kingdom realising its own potential and taking advantage of resources that have been underused in the past. Still, the competition over the finite sports cake in the region is fierce (how many events from the international sports calendar can you fit into the Gulf’s mild winter months?). They are playing catch up with Qatar who has previously hosted the Asian Games in 2006 and is preparing to host the World Cup in 2022. This race has also opened both countries to accusations of using sports to distract from their human rights records in what has become known as “sportswashing”.

An attempt by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, to acquire Newcastle United football club failed after the PIF decided to withdraw from the deal last July after Qatar-owned beIN Sports —who holds broadcasting rights of the English Premier League in the Middle East— lobbied against the takeover over Saudi involvement in beoutQ, a piracy operation that aired the league matches illegally in the past. 

The league clubs on Thursday voted to renew its deal with beIN Sports for three more seasons until 2025 for $500m. Newcastle was the only club to oppose the agreement. The fact that beIN Sports has decided to proceed with the deal, which covers Saudi Arabia, suggests Qatari officials are confident that the Gulf dispute will be resolved soon as the kingdom was the network’s most lucrative market before the boycott.

“This deal demonstrates that rights-holders who do the most to protect their intellectual property also do the most to protect the value of their media rights,” beIN Media Group chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi said in a statement.

As talks continue to end the Gulf crisis ahead of next month’s GCC leaders summit, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over hosting sports tournaments is set to resume. The two countries have already submitted their bids for the 2027 Asian Cup. Iran and India are also in the mix. The Asian Football Confederation will announce its decision in June 2021.

Saudi officials hope that sports will help accelerate the kingdom’s plans to diversify its economy and move away from the long dependence on oil revenues. “We are looking at youth and to our people,” said Prince Fahd bin Jalawi, vice-president of the Saudi Olympic Committee. “Hosting this kind of event means the creation of new jobs, a lot of tourism and economic impact.”

But the Saudis are also hopeful that staging such events would improve the country’s image abroad.

Sultan al-Saif, a sports columnist for the local al-Riyadh daily, says what these bids show is that Saudi Arabia is finally moving to use sports as a tool to make people around the world see the kingdom for themselves away from negative media coverage.

“What is more important than the outcome of these two bids is sending a message to the whole world that the kingdom has a strong presence, great stature and an influence that it has begun to regain by using its soft power via sports, something that has been missing for a long time,” he wrote.

Vaccination begins

Meet Shaikha al-Harbi, 60, the first woman to receive the coronavirus vaccine in Saudi Arabia:

Even if you can’t understand Arabic or see her face, you can definitely feel the pure joy in her voice. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was so happy and I just wanted to come and get the shot,” she says. “I’m the happiest human being today. May God bless our government!”

Health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah also took the vaccine Thursday in front of television cameras at an exhibition centre converted to a field hospital for this purpose in the capital Riyadh. The move is meant to reassure the public about the vaccine’s safety as early shipments from Pfizer-BioNTech began arriving in the kingdom this week.

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