Dakar Rally opens dark new chapter in Saudi sportswashing

Dakar Rally opens dark new chapter in Saudi sportswashing
Comment: An 'open' Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with hosting sporting events, and everything to do with transparency and accountability, writes Anthony Harwood.
6 min read
14 Jan, 2020
Starting 2020, the Dakar Rally will be held in Saudi Arabia for five years [AFP]
It's a sad fact that the most newsworthy event to emerge from this week's Dakar Rally is the death of the Portuguese motorcyclist Paulo Gonclaves on stage seven of the race. 

Sad, not just because any loss of life in such circumstances is a tragedy and the mother of their two young children had spoken of her fears that something like this might happen following a crash four years ago. 

But regrettable also that the organisers of the race, France's Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), have chosen not to say or do anything which might upset the host country, Saudi Arabia, and spark headlines around the world. 

There was once a time when campaigners would call on sportsmen and women to boycott Riyadh when asked to play there, much as happened when "rebel tours" of South Africa were announced during the apartheid era. 

But that changed when the desert kingdom began offering huge sums of money that footballers, wrestlers, tennis players, snooker players and golfers were finding hard to turn down. 

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International realised that calling for a boycott was never going to work when the lure of the Saudi riyal was so great and promoters could point to how companies like House of Fraser, Gucci, Chanel and Starbucks are already trading in Saudi Arabia, so what's all the fuss? 

Instead, campaign groups asked that anyone who went to Riyadh spoke out while they were there about the country's appalling human rights abuses. 

The fact that activists who campaigned for women's right to drive have been tortured and kept behind bars, that the country's de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) "most likely" ordered the cold-blooded murder of the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

HRW and Amnesty realised that calling for a boycott was never going to work when the lure of the Saudi riyal was so great

Or that the same MBS has spent four years bombing Yemen back to the Dark Ages in a relentless air campaign whose collateral damage has left 100,000 dead and 85,000 infants on the brink of starvation. 

What chance of just one member of the Dakar Rally community standing with the four women's rights champions - Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz - as they continue the fight to end the country's oppressive male guardianship system? 

What chance of just one of the 556 competitors wearing a #StandWithSaudiHeroes pink armband during the 12-day event? 

As Ines Osman, director of the MENA Rights Group, said: "These activists, and countless others, have paid the price of their freedom for the state's 'social change' narrative. Competitors and sports fans must speak up, as silence allows Riyadh's soft power tactics to wash away human rights abuses, shutting down the voices of Saudi human rights defenders." 

The term 'sportswashing' has entered the lexicon as a way to describe how countries such as Saudi Arabia use sport to wash away the stains on their reputation and pretend everything in the garden is rosy. 

Read more: Joshua-Ruiz rematch puts Saudi sportswashing back in the ring

To do this they lure sports stars and celebrities to their country with huge sums of money; only on Friday the manager of Barcelona, Ernesto Valverde, admitted that the only reason the Spanish Super Cup was being hosted in Riyadh was because of the money on offer. 

Likewise, the British boxer, Anthony Joshua, got $86m to agree to last month's world heavyweight title fight with Andy Ruiz Jnr in Saudi Arabia. 

The Dakar Rally has been going since 1978, and used to be known as the Paris-Dakar Rally, which would race from France to Senegal. 

Following security threats in Mauritania which led to the cancellation of the 2008 event, the famous off-road race was switched to South America where it was held until 2019. 

Which brings us to its third incarnation, this year's inaugural 9000km-long race in Saudi Arabia organised by ASO, which also runs the Tour de France and the Paris Marathon. 

The extent to which the French company has been craven in its dealings with Riyadh was shown by their willingness to break a five-year agreement with Qatar-based beIN Sports to exclusively broadcast the race across the region. 

Riyadh and Doha have been at loggerheads ever since a Saudi-led boycott of the Gulf state in June 2017 which has to led to the rogue TV station, BeoutQ, pirating beIN content on an industrial scale. 

By opening up we mean having a transparent judicial system

The addition of the Dakar Rally to its list of stolen transmissions was only halted by the Nanterre Commercial Court, which threatened ASO with an $11,200 per day fine if it broke its agreement with the Doha-based channel. 

But it was an early sign of ASO's intent that, far from rocking the boat on human rights, it was happy to dance to the Saudi tune with regards to its wholesale piracy of sport which has received worldwide approbrium. 

In November the Dakar director, David Castera, claimed there had been hesitation before choosing Saudi Arabia for the rally, but didn't elaborate on what the "many guarantees" were which had held things up. 

He also noted that Dakar was not the first sporting event to be held in Saudi, which of course is true, and is why the Saudis continue to spend a fortune attracting high-profile competitors: so it becomes normalised. 

The Saudi authorities have said they hope broadcasts of the race - showing the country's beautiful expanses of desert, mountains and coastline - will provide a boost to its tourist industry. The sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, said accusations of sportswashing are wrong because his country was always criticised for "not opening up to the world". 

It's sad that not one of those drivers from 62 nations had so much as a pink armband between them

What a crass thing to say. By opening up, we don't mean gawping at the Saudi desert. 

By opening up we mean having a transparent judicial system where a trial which allows the organisers of Khashoggi's murder to escape punishment can be scrutinised. 

By opening up we mean allowing a cross-party group of British members of parliament access to women's rights activists detained in Saudi Arabia, as well as their guards, following claims they have been tortured and sexually assaulted while in jail. 

By opening up we mean allowing an examination of how the Saudi-led coalition have carried out unlawful attacks in Yemen, restricted access to humanitarian aid, carried out arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and child recruitment. 

It's sad that not one of those drivers from 62 nations had so much as a pink armband between them when they set off from Jeddah on 5 January on what the Saudi media proudly call 'Chapter 3' in the race's history. 

If they don't find their voices by the time they reach Riyadh on Friday - and I'm not holding my breath - the start of a five year contract to hold the race in Saudi Arabia will actually mark the most shameful stretch of the Dakar Rally's history. 

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.