How Saudi Arabia is aiming to be home to the world’s biggest sporting events

JEDDAH: The Saudi Arabian coastal city of Jeddah was in renewed excitement on Saturday ahead of one of the biggest boxing rematches in sporting history between Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk and British fighter Anthony Joshua.

Such scenes of anticipation are becoming more familiar in Saudi Arabia as the kingdom hosts an increasing number of international sporting events – a product of the country’s far-reaching social and economic transformation plan, Vision 2030.

Soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Australia, part of Asia qualifiers for World Cup 2022 in Qatar, on March 29, 2022 in Jeddah. (Photo by AFP)

Last September, Usyk shocked the boxing world when he outclassed Joshua in the first fight and claimed his fourth heavyweight title. Due to the war in Ukraine, the planned rematch could not take place in the champion’s home country.

Instead, the fight, titled “Rage on the Red Sea,” came to Jeddah.

Oleksandr Usyk, left, and Anthony Joshua before their rematch in Jeddah on August 20, 2022. (AN Photo by Huda Bashatah)

One of the goals of Vision 2030, launched in 2016, was to establish the kingdom as a regional hub for world-class professional sporting events that would create jobs for Saudi citizens and improve the overall quality of life.

Today, sport is at the heart of the kingdom’s diversification efforts to move the economy away from hydrocarbons and to encompass a whole range of thriving cultural, entrepreneurial and high-tech industries.

In just a few short years, Saudi Arabia has risen to the top and has hosted some of the world’s biggest sporting events, providing an extra boost to tourism, hospitality, leisure and employment while strengthening national identity.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) attends the start of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship in Diriyah, Riyadh on November 22, 2019 (Saudi Royal Palace photo/ File)

Tourism is an area that Saudi Arabia is particularly looking to boost with the launch of its Saudi Arabia e-Visa in 2018. The kingdom expects to have hosted 100 million tourists by 2030, attracted by a mix of new luxury resorts and a busy entertainment calendar.

Hosting major sporting events has created new opportunities for partnerships, investments and sponsorships at every stage of the value chain, while demonstrating Saudi Arabia’s diversity, inclusivity and economic potential to a wider international audience.

Toyota’s Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi and British co-driver Michael Orr compete on January 13, 2022 during Stage 11 of the Dakar 2022 in Bisha. (AFP)

From the silky smooth tarmac of the Formula E circuit, to the epic tracks of the Dakar Desert Race and the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City to King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, the Kingdom’s sports entertainment infrastructure has leapt and bounded .

Saudi Arabia’s successful bid to host the 2034 Asian Games is further evidence of the sector’s long-term strategic direction – one that is linked to its overall national development.

In 2018, the kingdom saw a spate of major sporting events, tournaments and championships. That year, Briton Callum Smith beat compatriot George Groves in Jeddah to win the WBA super middleweight title and the World Boxing Super Series crown.

The 2018 Ad Diriyah E-Prix was also one for the books as the championship was held in the historic city of Diriyah, the capital of the first Saudi state.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has hosted the Supercoppa Italiana, the extended Supercopa de Espana, the Gulf Saudi International and the $20 million Saudi Cup – the richest horse race in the world.

Jockey Wigberto Ramos with Emblem Road celebrates after winning the 1800m Group 1 race of the $20 million Saudi Cup in Riyadh February 26, 2022. (AFP file)

It has also hosted the Saudi International Championship for Parachuting, the “Clash on the Dunes” between Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr., the Diriyah Tennis Cup and the Battle of the Champions BMX and Skateboard Tournament to name a few.

Although the entertainment revolution in Saudi Arabia suffered setbacks in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as events were suspended, venues closed and international travel banned for several months, the entertainment calendar soon returned with a bang.

In 2021, the Kingdom inaugurated its crowning glory – the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix – and firmly established itself as a premier venue for international sporting events.

The drivers will compete in the 2022 Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022. (AFP)

Built in just eight months, the high-speed track on Jeddah’s seafront became the fastest F1 track ever built.

The kingdom now aims to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2026 and the Asian Winter Games in 2029 in Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity NEOM.

A view of Trojena from NEOM, a mountain destination in northwestern Saudi province of Tabuk that will soon offer year-round outdoor skiing and adventure sports. (included)

A recent Ernst & Young report found that the value of the sporting events industry in Saudi Arabia is growing at 8 percent annually, rising from $2.1 billion in 2018 to an estimated $3.3 billion in 2024.

Sport’s contribution to national GDP increased from US$2.4 billion in 2016 to US$6.9 billion in 2019 as the number of international events in Saudi Arabia increased from nine in 2018 to 19 in the year doubled in 2019.

Of course, economic dividends aren’t the only signs of success. The kingdom’s young athletes have achieved significant victories of which the whole nation can be rightly proud.

Last year, Tarek Hamdi of Saudi Arabia won silver in karate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Then, earlier this year, Fayik Abdi became the first Saudi to participate in the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Alpine skier Fayik Abdi became the first Saudi ever to compete in the Winter Olympics. (Saudi Olympic Committee)

The Saudi national team, who performed well in their fifth appearance at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, qualified for this winter’s finals in March this year.

Another positive knock-on effect of the growth in sports entertainment has been the general uptake of health and fitness activities among the Saudi population.

A new survey by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics has found that 48.2 percent of people across the country are now physically active for at least 30 minutes a week.

This is an important milestone in creating a healthy, vibrant society in line with the Vision 2030 quality of life goals.

Another pillar of the “Vision 2030” reform agenda was changing the role of women. Saudi Arabia has developed several strategies to include women in the sport, including the establishment of a 24-team women’s football league in 2020 and the launch of the first regional women’s football league the following year.

The Saudi women’s national soccer team has received a boost with the appointment of veteran German coach Monika Staab as coach. (included)

According to the Saudi Ministry of Sport, women’s participation in sport has increased by almost 150 percent since 2015.

“By participating in sporting events, women achieve so much more,” Hala Al-Hamrani, founder of the first female boxing gym in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News. “Tonight’s boxing event is a big deal, but I’m going to be mainly looking at the first two women’s undercards in Saudi Arabia.”

On this undercard, a big moment for women’s boxing will come as Somali-British up-and-comer Ramla Ali becomes the first female boxer to compete in an official international event in Saudi Arabia and in an eight-round super bantamweight bout with Crystal Garcia Nova crashes.

“I think this is a big step forward because it sends a message to the public that the government supports women participating in martial arts, which in turn allows for families who used to be reluctant to have their girls participate in classes or various martial arts competitions to reconsider their position,” said Al-Hamrani.

Such events “help dispel the notion that women shouldn’t box,” she added.

“The undercard and government support is a big deal and shows that women’s involvement in sport is no longer taboo in any way.”

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