Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman doubles down on sportswashing accusations, vows to continue strategy
Saudi Arabia leader Prince Mohammed bin Salaman brushed aside the allegations of sportswashing made against his country.
The Middle Eastern nation has been accused of weaponising people's love for sport to improve its reputation tarnished by human rights issues. Through its Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia has made major moves in the world of sport. And with the PIF's estimated value at $620 billion, it looks set to continue.
But speaking to Fox News this week, bin Salman seemed to care little about what his detractors had to say…
"If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1 percent, then we'll continue doing sportswashing," said the Prince.
"I don't care [about the term]. I have 1 percent growth in GDP from sport and I am aiming for another 1.5 percent. Call it what you want - we are going to get that 1.5 percent."
Bin Salman went on to say that the strategy dovetails with the goal of making Saudi Arabia popular with tourists.
"We can see tourism used to contribute to Saudi GDP 3 percent, now it's 7 percent," he added.
"Sport used to be 0.4 percent, now it's 1.5 percent, so it's economic growth, it's jobs, it's a calendar, it's entertainment, it's tourism. You can see that now we are ranked number one in the Middle East, six years ago we were not in top ten in the Middle East. We are aiming to get over 100 million visits in 2030, maybe 150. Last year we reached almost 40 million visits from Saudi and globally."
The impact of the PIF is being felt throughout the sporting world.
It has funded the formation of breakaway tour LIV Golf, luring a host of players away from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. The fund has also spent nearly $1 billion on acquiring the services of several football megastars - including Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr and Karim Benzema - for its Saudi Pro League.
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF, helped illustrate the takeover of Newcastle United in the Premier League. He is now the club's chairman. Aside from hosting the Club World Cup in December, Saudi Arabia is also in pole position to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 or 2034.
Speaking of, the Kingdom also struck a long-term deal with F1 bosses for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and has hosted a number of high-profile boxing matches. The nation's capital, Riyadh, will host the megafight between heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former UFC champion Francis Ngannou in October.
Meanwhile, Felix Jakens, Amnesty International's head of priority campaigns, said there continued to be human rights issues under the Prince's rule. The BBC reports that women's rights abuses, the criminalisation of homosexuality and the restriction of free speech continue to be flashpoints.
"Mohammed bin Salman's rule has been a truly dark time for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and no amount of talk about economic visions or of an expansion into new sporting ventures should be allowed to distract from that fact," said Jakens.
"Not caring about the sportswashing label is one thing, but Mohammed bin Salman also doesn't seem to care about the peaceful activists languishing behind bars in Saudi Arabia, the 196 people executed in the country last year, or the personal pain of the family of Jamal Khashoggi who are still desperately hoping to see justice done in his case."