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From F1 to CR7, oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s sports shopping spree

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia was named as the lone bidder for the 2034 World Cup on Tuesday, a major success that follows a string of high-profile sports acquisitions.

The conservative Gulf monarchy, often criticised over its human rights record, is attempting to burnish its image and attract tourists and investment as it tries to diversify its economy away from oil.

Here are some of the moves that have turned Saudi Arabia into a major player in sports:

Winter sports

Saudi Arabia, a mostly desert country where summer temperatures touch 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), raised eyebrows last October when it was chosen to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.

The event, which has already earned the wrath of environmental campaigners, will be held at NEOM, an under-construction $500 billion megacity that is planning a year-round winter sports complex.

Five years later, the same year as the World Cup, the capital Riyadh will put on the 2034 Asian Games, an Olympic-sized multi-sports event. Hosting an Olympics is the kingdom’s “ultimate goal”, Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal told AFP last August.

Formula One

The glitzy world of F1 zoomed in to Jeddah, the Red Sea city that is a gateway for pilgrims to Mecca, in 2021 with a night race flanking the coastline. It is one of four grands prix to be held in the wealthy Gulf this year.

The 2022 edition was overshadowed by an attack by Huthi rebels from Yemen, Saudi’s war-torn neighbour, that left oil facilities belching black smoke within sight of the circuit during practice sessions.

Football

Saudi Arabian clubs — backed by the Public Investment Fund sovereign wealth vehicle — have been on an extraordinary buying spree this year, starting with Al-Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in January on a two-and-a-half-year deal said to total 400 million euros.

It opened the floodgates, with Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema joining Al-Ittihad, Neymar leaving Qatar-owned Paris Saint-German for Al-Hilal and a stream of other late-career stars making their way to the Saudi Pro League.

In October 2021, well before the Pro League’s acquisitions, a Saudi-funded consortium completed its takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United following a protracted wrangle with regulators.

Fans of the long-time “sleeping giant”, who had been at odds with the previous owner for years, celebrated by donning Arab headdresses at St. James’s Park stadium. Newcastle have since enjoyed a lift in fortunes, qualifying for this season’s Champions League.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia will host the Club World Cup at the end of December as well as the 2027 Asian Cup, now a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. It is also bidding to hold the women’s Asian Cup in 2026.

Golf

Saudi money has changed the face of professional golf after the upstart LIV Golf, following a legal battle with the established US PGA and European tours, announced a shock merger with its rivals in June.

The deal, which is due to be finalised at the end of December, follows a two-year civil war after LIV poached players for huge sums, prompting the US and European circuits to rule them ineligible for certain tournaments including, in the case of Europe, the Ryder Cup.

Former world number one Dustin Johnson has been one of the prime beneficiaries, scooping $35 million in prize money in the inaugural season — on top of a reported $150 million just for agreeing to play.

Boxing

When world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury won a split-decision in a non-title bout with MMA star Francis Ngannou on Saturday, it was just the latest high-profile fight in Saudi Arabia.

Anthony Joshua, another British heavyweight, has fought twice in Saudi, earning a big payday each time while swatting off criticism over alleged sportswashing.

Joshua won his revenge match against America’s Andy Ruiz in King Abdullah Sports City in December 2019, before returning in August last year when he was outclassed by Ukrainian maestro Oleksandr Usyk.

Tennis

This year’s Next Gen ATP Finals, featuring the hottest young men’s players, will be played in Jeddah in December. Saudi Arabia was also reported to be the front-runner to host this year’s WTA Finals before Cancun in Mexico was named as the organiser.

Cricket

Last year Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil exporter and one of its richest companies, embarked on a sponsorship of major events organised by the International Cricket Council, including the men’s and women’s one-day and T20 World Cups.

Rallying

The Dakar Rally, initially raced between Paris and the Senegalese capital, has been held on Saudi Arabia’s unforgiving terrain since 2020.

Last year’s edition was plunged into controversy when French driver Philippe Boutron was seriously wounded in an explosion that French investigators said was caused by an improvised explosive device stowed on his car.

Racing

Saudi Arabia has galloped to the fore in horse racing with the $20 million Saudi Cup, the world’s richest race. The 2021 and 2022 editions were won by Saudi-owned horses, including 66-1 Emblem Road’s victory last year. Japanese longshot Panthalassa won this year’s race in February.

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