Saudi Arabia unveils 2020 Dakar Rally route, passing through NEOM and the kingdom's conservative heartland

Saudi Arabia unveils 2020 Dakar Rally route, passing through NEOM and the kingdom's conservative heartland
Saudi Arabia will host the gruelling Dakar Rally in 2020.
3 min read
21 November, 2019
Saudi Arabia is hosting the 2020 Dakar Rally [Getty]
The organisers of the Dakar Rally have unveiled the route for the controversial 2020 race in Saudi Arabia, the first time the gruelling race will take place in the Middle East region.

The 9,000km race will take place over two-weeks in January, seeing rally drivers take on 250 metre-high sand dunes and rocky plateaus as they travel the length of Saudi Arabia, but human rights groups have slammed it as a propaganda coup for Riyadh.

The 42nd edition of the Dakkar Rally starts on 5 January in the coastal city of Jeddah and passes through the kingdom's conservative Najd region, with a stop over in the capital Riyadh on 11 January.

They will then head south towards the Yemen border before taking on the kingdom's Empty Quarter desert region in the east.
The final stretch of the rally will see them racing towards the finishing line in Qiddiyah, just outside Riyadh, on 17 January.

The international rally traditionally saw challengers begin the race in Paris before taking the dangerous - sometimes fatal - 10,000 journey south through Europe and North Africa to Dakkar, Senegal.

This route was suspended in 2008 due to the security situation in Mauritania and other parts of the Sahel region, with South America and Central Europe hosting the rally since then.

Current Dakar Rally winner, Eduard Nikolaev, said that the race in the kingdom will prove a new challenge for the competitors.

"The terrain could be similar to African Dakars," Nikolaev said, according the the Red Bull website.

"Not quite the amount of high dunes like in Peru, but a lot of rocky terrain like in Morocco. We're prepared for a hard route."

The race is part of a push by Saudi Arabia to make itself a regional sporting hub, a mission pursued by other regional states such as Qatar and the UAE.

Such efforts are critical to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to rebrand the kingdom as a modern, young and enterprising country, after for decades being associated with the austere conservatism of Wahhabi Islam.

This includes ending a ban on women driving and opening up the country to tourism.

His bid to modernise Saudi Arabia's image has been offset by a brutal crackdown on perceived opponents, including women's rights activists.

Mohammed bin Salman has been under severe criticism after being linked to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

"We have extended our hand," said David Castera, the  head of the Dakar Rally, when Saudi Arabia was unveiled as the host of the race in April.

"We asked ourselves the questions but there is a real desire for openness."

Despite this, Saudi Arabia is obviously seeking a propaganda win with the race passing through Neom, a planned, multi-billion dollar futuristic city which is key to Mohammed bin Salman's plans to diversify the kingdom's oil-reliant economy.

The reigning Dakar Car Class Champion is Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah, who is set to compete in the race despite his country being under blockade by Saudi Arabia and even though Qatari citizens are banned from the kingdom.

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