putting the Saudi Cup in context

(This was originally published February 11, 2020 at thorocap.com. With that site offline, that link points to the copy on archive.org. i’m republishing it here both in case anything happens to this record on archive.org, and because i’d prefer it to also be readable without referring to my deadname.)


Last week, horse racing buzzed over the probables for the richest Thoroughbred race in history: the Saudi Cup, scheduled for February 29, 2020 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Far fewer people in horse racing were talking about another piece of news related to the country: a report Amnesty International released on February 6 about Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), an institution at the heart of its continued repression of dissidents and activists.  It was originally set up in 2008 as a court to try people accused of terrorism-related crimes, but starting in 2011 it began to hear cases in which the defendants were accused of criticizing the government, dissenting against its policies, or spreading religious faith not strictly in line with the government’s.

Though Amnesty International’s report about the human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia is the most recent one, it is far from the only one.  Similar concerns have also been raised by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Ben Emmerson, serving in his capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.  All of these organizations have raised legitimate and /credible concerns about the SCC specifically, and Saudi repression of those who disagree with the government more broadly.

Some may say, “stick to sports!”, or wonder what these issues have to do with a horse race. The question matters given the timing of the Saudi Cup’s inauguration and the framing of the event.

The Saudi Cup is no one-off, and horse racing is not alone among sports in having to reckon with a marquee event.  Though this is the first effort made at such a grand scope to get racehorses worldwide to point toward a marquee race day in the Kingdom, it is far from the only event to lure international sports stars to Saudi Arabia in recent years. 

In December Anthony Joshua defeated Andy Ruiz, Jr. to win the major boxing heavyweight belts; the fight happened in Diriyah, outside of Riyadh.  Last month the Dakar Rally, one of the world’s top marathon off-road races, was contested for the first time in Saudi Arabia; plans are in place to host the rally in Saudi Arabia for at least five years.  In 2019 the European Tour, the top-level golf tour in Europe, began to contest the Saudi International tournament; the 2020 edition wrapped up February 2.

The official justification for this explosion in major sporting events in Saudi Arabia ties into Vision 2030, the plan for the country’s social and economic future that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced in 2016.  According to a December 6, 2019 BBC article HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, chairman of the General Sports Authority, stated to BBC sports editor Dan Roan that the rise in international sporting events is intended to get Saudi citizens more physically active.  And, tying back to the text of Vision 2030, world-class sporting events tie directly to the stated goal for Saudi Arabia to “be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally.”

On the surface, the narrative fits, but taking that argument at face value is shallow.  As political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power”, states in his 1990 Foreign Policy article of the same name, “A state may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other states want to follow it or have agreed to a situation that produces such effects.”  Nye continues, “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes…If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change.”  In other words, instead of using or threatening force to get its way, a country can use other leverage to get its way. Ways to get that leverage include “cultural and ideological attraction”.

The shining visions of culture, sport, technology, diversified energy, and government transparency listed in Saudi Arabia’s publicly released and oft-cited “Vision 2030” are a way of exerting soft power, of gaining respect on the world stage through the power of attraction instead of a show of force.  Sports are another common way of trying to leverage soft power for, both to gain global standing as well as to paper over political repression with a grand spectacle of something broadly beloved and seemingly apolitical — it’s just a game, right? But, sports have political context, too.

August 7, 2019, at a press conference in Saratoga, the Saudi Cup was unveiled to the horse racing world.  Prince Bandar Khalid al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, stated: “We look forward to welcoming international horsemen and women, the media, racing enthusiasts, and the public to Riyadh in 2020.”

Prince Bandar’s specific wording about the opportunities the Saudi Cup will provide to “horsemen and women” sounds like several already-revealed pages from the Vision 2030 public relations playbook.  Consider the efforts to get a Saudi female driver in the 2021 Dakar Rally.  The WWE, who started doing shows in 2014 featuring “males only”, finally had its first women’s wrestling match last October in Riyadh, between Natalya and Lacey Evans.

But, the broader picture of women’s standing in Saudi Arabia is far more complicated than these sports highlights.

As noted on page 14 of this month’s Amnesty International report, the country has made some actual reforms in recent years. Women began receiving driver’s licenses in June 2018.  The next year saw the loosening of some of the restrictions of the guardianship system, a framework of laws and customs which has required women to depend on men’s permission in legal, civic, and even personal matters. A guardianship system still exists, but royal decrees were made in 2019 to allow women to get passports; travel abroad; register marriages, divorces, and children; and obtain family documents without explicit male approval.

Those are undeniably improvements to Saudi Arabia’s legal treatment of women.  However, according to activists who spoke to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities commanded people not to speak out in 2017 when they announced plans to end the driving ban.  In May 2018, the month before women began to get driver’s licenses in Saudi Arabia, there was a round of arrests of Saudi women’s rights activists.  Some of them remain in custody, due to violations of vague antiterrorism laws. Their enumerated offenses include speaking to international journalists.

Prince Bandar’s pronouncement that he looks forward to welcoming the media also rings hollow given how the Kingdom has treated journalists who do not walk the government’s line.

Anyone who has read the news in the last year and a half knows the name Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. Though he was not a lifelong dissident, during his journalistic career in Saudi Arabia he suffered consequences for doing things people in a country with a more free press may take for granted being able to do: publishing critiques of the government, and leading a news station that was taken off the air for interviewing an opposition leader.  He stated publicly that he exiled himself from the country in order to speak more freely about his concerns related to the government. In the final year of his life he wrote a column for the Washington Post; among its topics was the tight control Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman maintained over the media.  He walked into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018 to get papers he needed for his upcoming marriage.  Khashoggi never walked out of that embassy.

Upon investigation Agnes Callamard, acting as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings, concluded that Khashoggi’s killing was an extrajudicial killing for which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.  As outlined in a report released on June 19, 2019 Callamard found, among a long list of concerning circumstances around his death, significant deficiencies in both the investigation of Khashoggi’s death and the trial of 11 people accused of carrying out his killing.  Wrote Callamard, “The trial is held behind closed doors; the identity of those charged has not been released nor is the identity of those facing the death penalty. At the time of writing, at least one of those identified as responsible for the planning and organizing of the execution of Mr. Khashoggi has not been charged.”

One journalist being the target of government repression is one too many, but Jamal Khashoggi is not the only one.  Saudi Arabia is aware that its detention of journalists tarnishes its reputation on the world stage, to the extent that it allowed a delegation from international press freedom organization Reporters without Borders to meet with government ministers in July 2019.  The ministers expressed dissatisfaction that the organization ranked Saudi Arabia so low on its press freedom index, but made no commitment to release 30 journalists that the organization alleged were detained.  In its 2019 survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that at least 26 journalists were held in captivity, including 18 for whom the charges had not been disclosed.

At its heart, this is why horse racing needs to be concerned. Anyone who follows the sport will have to acknowledge the Saudi Cup is happening, since the best horses in the world are racing there and the results will impact the season going forward.  But, we also need to think critically about what the event asks us to accept.

A spectacle of the best horses in the world running for the biggest purse in the world asks us to buy into it as part of Vision 2030’s narrative of Saudi Arabia becoming more open and inviting the world’s attention.  Evidence suggests that this spotlight on major sporting events casts a shadow over continued repression of critical speech from both activists and journalists. Prince Bandar’s invitation last August for the world to watch, attend, and cover the Saudi Cup can only be understood in the broader context of what the Saudi government allows people to see, discuss, and state publicly.

It’s time to take off the blinkers.

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