The Paris-Dakar Rally, inaugurated in 1978 and now known as The Dakar Rally, or simply The Dakar, was originally staged from Paris to Senegal in West Africa. After being held for 10 years in South America due to security concerns, the 2020 event is taking place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 5 to 17 January.
In April last year, the organisers unveiled the route of the race at a press conference. They also announced a five-year partnership with Saudi Arabia as the host country.
Two days before this press conference, three miners were beheaded in the Kingdom. With The Dakar 2020, there is a degree of "sportwashing" taking place, with the country in direct violation of human rights holding sports events to divert attention from its actions.
Since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a frenzy of buying and financing cultural and sporting events: NBA basketball matches, baseball, Formula E racing (and possibly Formula 1), boxing, golf and the Italian and Spanish football Super Cup tournaments. It is buying up popular and elitist sports alike.
However, fifteen NGOs, including the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), ALQST in Saudia Arabia and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have appealed to the organisers of The Dakar to understand how bad the human rights situation is in Saudi Arabia. These NGOs also called on "the organisers, participants, sponsors and official broadcasters of the Dakar Rally to urge the Saudi authorities to drop all charges against Saudi women's rights activists and to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for their peaceful and legitimate human rights work." Participants in the Dakar Rally are asked to help raise awareness and show solidarity by wearing a pink #StandWithSaudiHeroes armband throughout the event.
During the NGOs' press conference in Paris on 3 December, the Advocacy Director at the IFHR, Antoine Madelin, pointed out that the organisers of The Dakar are headed by a French company, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO). The main French sponsor is the public media group France Télévisions. "We are amazed to see these companies fall into this Saudi trap," said Madelin. "Our appeal goes out to the participants and to the journalists to wake up and to seize the opportunity to go to Saudi Arabia to scratch behind the postcard image." The Director of HRW France, Bénédicte Jeannerod, also made no secret of her astonishment.
The NGOs appealed to the entire rally community and competitors. "Saudi women are still in prison for defending women's right to drive. We have sent a letter to Amaury Sport Organisation urging them to develop a human rights policy that does not condone Saudi Arabian policy." So far, there has been no official reaction from either France Télévisions or ASO.
France's leading sports daily, L'Equipe, also belongs to the Amaury group. France TV's powerful media machine will be on the Saudi front. Seventy television channels will broadcast the Dakar Rally in 190 countries across five continents for a total of 1,200 hours on air. According to the organisation, 1,900 journalists have been accredited. Will all they all be able to work without raising the question of human rights?
The NGOs that launched the appeal fear an alignment with the ambiguous French diplomatic position. According to Michel Tubiana, honorary president of the League of Human Rights (La Ligue des droits de l'homme), "Enough is enough. We are faced with a decision by two French groups that have aligned themselves with the strategic partnership that France has with Saudi Arabia. There has been a near total silence from the French authorities about Khashoggi's assassination, and on Yemen, while a UN report denounces the role of Riyadh in this war. The Dakar will be played out in the shadow of [French-made] Caesar howitzers. These weapons protect the country and bomb Yemen."
The report cited by Tubiani is dated 3 September, 2019. It notes that, "The Yemeni government, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Houthis and the affiliated People's Committees, have benefited from a 'general lack of responsibility' for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights."
According to the former lawyer, the issue of The Dakar in Saudi Arabia is distinctly political. "There are French financial interests with regard to arms contracts, but also geopolitical interests that are well understood in relation to the soft power that France wants to have in this part of the world. If Saudi Arabia is a detestable player in terms of its policy, the country is also a key player. France's position is basically the expression of a realpolitik as conceived by all French governments, because none of them has been an exception to this line."
Saudi Arabian diplomacy has for many years meant arms deals and spreading its religious values and beliefs. Since Khashoggi's murder, though, the Kingdom has come under fire from international critics, despite all the counter-issues raised by allies anxious to limit its PR disaster.
The reality contrasts sharply with the torrent of praise from the Western press which had welcomed the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. A carefully-crafted narrative made him out to be an open-minded reformer, particularly with regard to human rights and women's rights. Bin Salman is trying to regain a less bloody image on the international stage, but the lack of transparency in the investigation into Khashoggi's death, and the torture and detention of women's rights activists, as well as war crimes committed during military operations in Yemen, have not played in the prince's favour. That's a war, remember, that has reportedly claimed at least 100,000 lives and destroyed an entire country, creating a humanitarian catastrophe in the process.
Some reforms in Saudi Arabia have indeed served Bin Salman's new image, including certain measures described as "open" which allow women to drive and remove travel restrictions for women over 21 years of age, for example. "These reforms are used as a storefront," claims Yahya Assiri, a Saudi human rights activist with NGO ALQST. "The country has the support of Western countries. After the Khashoggi affair, once Bin Salman thought it was off the hook, things went back to normal."
Another Saudi activist, Hala Al-Dosari, is equally sceptical, and says that the government in Riyadh does not really want to reform the country's social, political and religious structures: "The so-called reforms are mere advertising. Propaganda plays a full part in this country. There is a system of repression in place that is opposed to any form of real freedom of expression."
Defenders of human rights in the Kingdom face arbitrary threats, arrest and torture. Among those in detention are Loujain Al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi, who have advocated for the right of women to drive and for an end to the discriminatory system of male guardianship. They were, along with Nassima Al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz, among a dozen women's rights defenders arrested as part of a crackdown in 2018 in retaliation for their peaceful efforts to protect and promote women's rights in Saudi Arabia. According to the NGOs which have appealed to the organisers of The Dakar to think again, "Some women have reported being subjected to electric shocks, floggings, sexual threats and other forms of torture during their interrogation. Some have also been held in prolonged solitary confinement. These women, who remain in detention, along with other women's rights activists on provisional release, are being prosecuted solely on the basis of their activism."
Assiri stresses that they are talking about systemic torture. "The government pays millions in PR. The media cover stories about sports, the desert, reforms, but nothing about human rights violations. The only narratives we hear are those of the regime. Those who speak out are behind bars."
Hosting the Dakar 2020 in the Saudi desert is part of Riyadh's "Vision 2030" economic reform plan. It is an ambitious and, above all, costly vision, rich in opportunities for Western companies. It also targets culture. As part of its policy of "openness", the Kingdom has set itself the goal of opening more than 200 public and private museums and 2,000 cinemas over 10 years. The government wants to double the number of archaeological sites open to the public. According to officials, thousands of concerts and festivals will be organised every year. Even Saudi women will be able to attend under the heavy, all-encompassing black abaya. It doesn't matter if such shows make this generation of Saudi youth forget the economic slowdown and high unemployment; it's a policy of panem et circenses — bread and circuses —under the unchanging Saudi sky.
Looking abroad, Saudi Arabia has increased its funding of and partnerships with prestigious institutions. The Paris Opera, for example, has been funded to create a national orchestra and opera in Jeddah. Several other projects are being studied for the Nabataean city of Al-Ula.
This all comes at enormous cost, and has prompted complacency amongst Western politicians, because businesses in the West are interested in the financial benefits. In recent years, the Kingdom has bought in the costly services of several French communication agencies, including Publicis, Havas and Image 7. Their brief has been to improve the country's image and insert positive stories in the French media. The Saudis are mimicking the United Arab Emirates with this policy, as well as Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Nevertheless, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman himself remains problematical and could explain Saudi agitation. "Bin Salman has lost a lot of credibility," says Yahya Assiri. "He made a lot of promises that have not been kept. The country has seen its reputation tarnished by crimes and human rights violations." The young prince, ruler in all but name, has also lost legitimacy. "Two pillars supported the House of Saud's power, the religious pillar with Wahhabism and the political pillar with the weight of the royal family. But these two pillars are not as strong as they used to be. The younger Saudi generation no longer believes in religious dignitaries linked to power."
Moreover, explains Assiri, there are definite tensions within the royal family. "Bin Salman has targeted members of the family, some of his cousins and relatives. He has many enemies. The third support he has left to hold on to his power is the deployment of public relations and the media, which still portray him as a reformer prince. But for how long?"
That is the question that those behind the sporting events being held in the Kingdom need to ask themselves. How long — and for how much money — are they prepared to "sportwash" the awful human rights situation in Saudi Arabia before their own reputation is tarnished beyond repair?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.