DIRIYAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A world class tennis exhibition, an international golf tournament, a Formula series car race and the world heavyweight boxing championship share a peculiar commonality: They’ve all played out in Saudi Arabia this year.
By hosting major sporting events, Saudi Arabia aims to draw attention to the sweeping social changes underway in the country and encourage Saudis to turn their attention to sports. Yet some big-name athletes have stayed away amid criticism the events are also an effort in “sportswashing” by diverting attention from the kingdom’s human rights record.
“We will face criticism whether we do something or we don’t,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, the 36-year-old royal who heads the kingdom’s General Sports Authority, said.
The prince leads the GSA’s spending spree to revolutionize sports in Saudi Arabia. While the sports authority’s budget is not public, it did reveal in July a $667 million plan to improve local clubs. The authority also oversees the biggest sporting events that have taken place in the country. It’s also organizing the upcoming Dakar Rally that kicks off Jan. 5.
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