When it was announced earlier this month that the high-profile rematch between former world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua and his conqueror Andy Ruiz would take place in Saudi Arabia, the news came as a surprise but not a complete shock to sports fans.
Although not as high profile a fight venue as Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas, several high profile bouts have taken place in the oil-rich desert kingdom over the past year; English Boxer Callum Smith defeated fellow countryman George Groves in front of a Jeddah crowd in September 2018 to claim the super-middleweight world title, and former light-welterweight world champion Amir Khan knocked Australian Billy Dib out in four rounds in April of this year at the same King Abdullah Sports City venue.
The magnitude of these fights pales in comparisons to that of the upcoming Joshua-Ruiz rematch, however.
Going into their original fight in June of this year, London-born Joshua was heavy favourite to sweep aside the then little-known Ruiz and retain his world heavyweight titles; in what was regarded as one of the biggest sporting upsets of all time, Ruiz would go on to floor the Briton four times before the referee halted the contest in Round 7 in favor of the Mexican-American.
A big-money rematch was immediately announced, with Madison Square Garden and Wales’ Principality Stadium being mooted as venues before eventually being settled on the town of Diriyah, north-west of Riyadh.
The staging of such a high-profile sporting event in the Gulf kingdom will not only allow the wealthy Saudi backers who procured the fight to generate a vast amount of money for themselves, the fighters involved and Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, it also gives Riyadh perhaps the biggest opportunity yet to polish its image on the world stage.
Over the past four years, the US-backed Gulf monarchy has been involved in a bloody war on neighboring Yemen in a bid to reinstall Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as President; with the House of Saud’s favored candidate having been deposed in March 2015 by the predominantly-Shia Houthi movement, long accused of being backed by Riyadh’s main regional rival, Iran.
With US and British made weapons, and with the help of military advisors from both countries, Riyadh has laid waste to Yemen’s agricultural sector since the beginning of the conflict; leading to widespread famine in what is already the most impoverished country in the Arab peninsula, and the worst recorded cholera outbreak in history.
Although this genocidal campaign has received widespread criticism by international human rights groups, it was last year’s murder of Saudi dissident in exile and Washington Post correspondent, Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi agents that most effectively placed the world’s focus on the US-backed Gulf regime.
Though this international outcry would ultimately amount to nothing more than empty rhetoric by Western governments, rather than the sanctions and military action that would have taken place had Saudi Arabia been a country opposed to the US-hegemony, the PR damage between Riyadh and potential business partners was done; Virgin tycoon Richard Branson suspended involvement in two Saudi-based tourism directorships as a result of the Khashoggi case, and the Future Investment Initiative (FII), a Riyadh-based high-level business summit, had several high-profile withdrawals in response to the killing.
Therefore, in a bid to improve its international image in the face of mounting international criticism over war crimes committed in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh pursued the strategy of hosting high-profile sporting and media events, a strategy that has recently been used by fellow US-ally and human rights-abuser, Israel.
In May of this year, the Eurovision song contest was held in Tel Aviv for the first time; similar to Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the Joshua-Ruiz rematch, the staging of this high-profile event was also done with the intentions of whitewashing the war crimes committed by the host nation, in this case, it being the decades-long Zionist occupation of Palestine and the brutal suppression of the indigenous Arab population that goes with it.
However, Tel Aviv’s attempt at covering up its war crimes failed miserably, with huge international attention being drawn to Israeli war crimes by pro-Palestinian activists during the contest; a stance that one can only hope will be repeated with Saudi Arabia and its war crimes in Yemen, should Riyadh continue to host high-profile sporting events such as the World Heavyweight Championship.
Top image: Vince McMahon, Turki bin Abdel Muhsin Al-Asheik of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, and Paul “Triple H” Levesque. Credit: @Turki_alalshikh