Sport, a “lever of influence” for Saudi Arabia

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After Africa and South America, the Dakar rally is contested for the first time in Saudi Arabia, from this Sunday, January 5, 2020 to January 17. By hosting this automobile competition, the Saudi kingdom, pointed out for its numerous human rights abuses, seeks to polish its image in the eyes of the world, because sport can “be a means to shine on the international scene” , explains Carole Gomez, researcher in sports geopolitics at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

RFI: The Dakar rally, the Italian and Spanish Super Cups, the Joshua-Ruiz boxing match , why is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia organizing more and more sporting events?

These are initiatives that meet three objectives: economic, political and diplomatic.

On the economic front, Saudi Arabia wishes to diversify its sources of income in the face of the drying up of oil resources that is looming. This is explained in their vision 2030 plan.

From a political point of view, there is a rather late realization that sport can be a means to shine on the international scene, to give a better image and to benefit from this significant lever of influence.

On the diplomatic level, in a context of strong tensions with neighboring Qatar, it is a way of playing on the flower beds of the Qataris who have managed to impose themselves over the years on the diplomatic sports scene

RFI: How long has Saudi Arabia been interested in sport?

There is a real correlation between the arrival of Mohammed Ben Salman at the head of the kingdom (note: he is the first Deputy Prime Minister since June 2017) and this desire to invest in sport. He understood that it was an innovative, dynamic, positive lever to give another image of the kingdom. For the moment, it is too recent to draw conclusions from it, but it is clear that this dynamic is linked to its arrival.

RFI: If this is successful, we imagine that this policy should continue?

Absolutely. Until now, the few initiatives had been launched without any real guidelines, depending on the opportunities, but here we are starting to observe a certain structure. And obviously, if the results are positive, if the organization of the Dakar rally does not encounter major difficulties, if the spin-offs in terms of audiences and image are satisfactory, it would not be surprising to imagine having to compose at the future with Saudi Arabia as an important player in sports diplomacy.

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