Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

Clash on the Dunes: GSA chairman Prince Abdulaziz on the future of Saudi sport

'We’re very excited, people are very excited, it’s the talk of the town'

Anthony Joshua with Saudi Arabia's GSA chairman Prince Abdulaziz. Reuters
Anthony Joshua with Saudi Arabia's GSA chairman Prince Abdulaziz. Reuters

Saudi Arabia will stage one of the most significant sports events in its history on Saturday, when Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua meet again in their world heavyweight title rematch in Diriyah.

Billed as the Clash on the Dunes, the event takes place at the 15-000-seat Diriyah Arena, on the Unesco World Heritage site on the outskirts of Riyadh, and has attracted media from around the world.

Part of the Diriyah Season festival, which includes Formula E, the Diriyah Tennis Cup and an equestrian world championship, Clash on the Dunes is the latest in a long list of major sports events to be hosted in Saudi.

Next month, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia will land in Jeddah to contest the Spanish Super Cup. The Dakar Rally will soon follow, journeying for the first time through the kingdom.

All fall under Saudi's extensive Vision 2030 initiative, from which the General Sports Authority (GSA) has committed $650 million (Dh2.38 billion) to the sports sector.

Ahead of Saturday’s event, GSA chairman Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal spoke to selected media about the Clash on the Dunes and Saudi’s plans for the future.

You’re hosting one of the biggest sporting events of the year. Can we expect to see more coming to Saudi?

We have two mandates in sport. One is to increase the number of Saudis participating. Hosting such events boosts the excitement, the interest, the awareness.

And the second mandate is to achieve excellence in hosting events. We want to make sure locals get an insight into such events. Boxing is one. We want to promote boxing, we want to promote a lot of the fights that are happening in the future and hopefully we can host them.

Is there any ceiling of ambition to the events you’re looking to host?

If you asked me two years ago if we were going to host Formula E, boxing, tennis next week, an equestrian qualifier for the Olympics, the Italian Super Cup on December 22, the Dakar Rally in January, the Spanish Super Cup in January as well, the Saudi Cup for flat racing in February, I’d tell you you must be dreaming. But today it is an ambition of the kingdom. And it’s just not in sports; it’s in all fields: entertainment, culture, all the engagement that we need to promote and uplift and excel. And that is part of the strategy. There’s a lot more to come.

Seventy per cent of the population of the kingdom is between 15 and 40 years old, and they see what’s happening around the world through social media and they want it to happen here.

You spoke about participation levels. Are you talking about women as well as men?

One hundred per cent. And today all our programmes include boys, girls, men and women that participate, or attend, or manage. A lot of what you see being built is managed by Saudi women. And 30 per cent of our employees in the General Sports Authority are now women. If you looked at it five years ago, there were only two. We’ve come a long way. I know we still have a lot to do, but we’re moving towards that. Only a month ago we participated in the Gulf Games in Kuwait. We had seven full-female teams participating. So change is happening.

Outside agencies have criticised the fight coming here. There’s a lot of talk about sportswashing. How do you address those comments?

Criticism is going to happen, whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. We have a strategy; we have a plan that we want to achieve. We’re fixing the social scene within the kingdom. If you look at only two years ago, women weren’t allowed to get into the stadiums to watch a football match. Now they’re allowed. But not just that; now they’re allowed to participate, allowed to be part of the national team. So criticism will happen; we accept it. We’re not perfect, but we’re striving towards a positive future.

There is change happening. How fast depends on how fast we can make it happen in the right way.

Do you find any reluctance within the government or the general public?

Any change will find resistance. Up until Formula E last year, we never had any international music concerts within the kingdom. We had the first during the Formula E - that was a mixed crowd. And people enjoyed it. Did we face some criticism from locals who don’t want this change? Yes we did. But we do have a strategy, we do have a plan.

It takes a lot of money to bring sports stars here. Are you going to have to keep paying this premium?

For us, the value of the social change, the excitement and the opportunity we’re giving to the locals and internationals to come to Saudi, has no price. That is the true value of what we’re investing in. We’re looking at what we are changing. This venue wasn’t here 47 days ago. It is here, built to a top standard by local, Saudi contractors and Saudi women and men. So the experience that we’re giving the locals in also hosting such an event, has no price. At the end of the day, if it’s too much we won’t pitch for it. We’re not just throwing money at whatever we want. We’re looking into what is an added value.

Could you see the country purchasing a major European football club?

We already have two private investors that have invested in two European clubs. One is Prince Abdullah Al Saud, who owns Sheffield United, and one is Turki Al Sheikh, who has invested in Almeria in Spain. All opportunities are open.

There has been talk about buying Manchester United. Is there a chance?

Not that I know of. But if the government looks and sees that there is a positive we’ll take it on, whether it’s Manchester United or any other club.

What needs to happen with this event for you to consider it a success?

You’re seeing what we’re doing, the standard of the facility. And the athletes are here, the boxers. Joshua’s been here for two weeks. Same with Andy. We want them to reflect what they’ve experienced. This will be my first fight, so I’m very lucky and privileged that we can host it and also to have such a line-up. Even the undercards are strong. We’re very excited, people are very excited, it’s the talk of the town. For me, if everyone just walks out here happy and with a smile on their faces, that will be hitting the point we wanted to achieve.

How soon could we see another boxing event of this magnitude here. Could that happen as quickly as next year?

Why not? We’ve already hosted one of the biggest ones and we’re open to anything that we think is truly an added value for the kingdom.

Updated: December 7, 2019 03:01 PM

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