Saudi Arabia is about to land another major sporting event after signing a memorandum of understanding with MotoGP, the motorcycle racing commercial rights holder Dorna Sports said yesterday. The kingdom appears to be unfazed by allegations that it is “sportswashing” its human rights violations.
According to Dorna, a Saudi Arabian MotoGP race will be held on a newly constructed, multi-purpose circuit, but it did not say where this will be within the kingdom. “The addition of Saudi Arabia to the MotoGP calendar on an annual basis will see the sport expanding further into the Middle East,” said the company.
“The region is a key market for motorsport and the demand in the kingdom for events of this kind is growing,” added Dorna chief executive Carmelo Ezpeleta. “Research shows that 80 per cent of Saudi fans want to see more in their country.”
MotoGP is the latest major sporting event to arrive in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has spent over $1.2 billion to expand its portfolio in sports and entertainment. Formula One made its debut last December as part of a 15-year deal. It also hosts the annual Dakar Rally, all-electric Formula E and Extreme E. Riyadh has also made a potentially lucrative investment through the takeover by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) of the English Premier League’s Newcastle United Football Club. More recently, the PIF has financed LIV Golf, seen as a competitor to the long-established PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association of America) Tour.
Saudi Arabia’s dramatic expansion however has not been without controversy, especially since the appointment of Mohammed Bin Salman as Crown Prince in 2017. The 37-year-old prince was accused of authorising the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and has led a major crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists.
Critics say that major sporting links allow Saudi Arabia to add a layer to its soft power strategy in an attempt to polish its public image on the international stage. Sportswashing is a term popularised by Amnesty International to describe the use of sports by oppressive governments to legitimise their regimes and divert attention away from their human rights abuses.