Brian O'Connor

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Saudi Cup 'Sportswashing'

Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck is among Saudi Cup entries
© Photo Healy Racing

'Sportswashing' is an evocative term. Technically it is hosting a sporting event in order for a county to improve its reputation, particularly if it has a poor human rights record. Saudi Arabia has been exercising such soft power with a vengeance in recent years. Next month's Saudi Cup is part of this strategy. So it represents something of a sporting dilemma.

Rory McIlroy was unequivocal. Ireland's finest golfer turned down an invitation to play in the Saudi Invitational tournament later this month, a decision that reportedly cost him a near €2 million appearance fee. McIlroy said there was a morality to his decision, a consideration that apparently doesn't figure for others such as Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka.

That tournament comes on the heels of last month's 'Clash on the Dunes' heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz. Earlier this month the Spanish Super Cup in football was decided in Saudi Arabia. Formula E racing is already a fixture in the country and there are plans for Saudi to join the Formula One circus by 2023.The Dakar rally was staged there last week.

This is the context for the new Saudi Cup meeting on February 29. A country where racing hasn't been a major factor now hosts a meeting worth over €26 million including the world's richest race, the $20 million dirt highlight. It is headline grabbing and has attracted huge international interest among them 54 Irish trained entries including from Aidan and Joseph O'Brien as well as Willie Mullins.

The scale of international interest alone suggests any moral element such as the one McIlroy wrestled with doesn't seem to rank too highly in racing's perspective generally on the new fixture. Considering the scale of Middle-East investment in the world industry that can be of little surprise to anyone.

It's not like racing is a sporting outlier either. The prospect of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar indicates how all sports reach for the money hose. Last year's world athletics championships taking place in front of empty seats and a ghostly atmosphere in the Qatari capital Doha was vivid testament to grander political considerations at play rather than faster-higher-stronger ideals.

Neither is it like the Saudi regime is alone in using sport to present a version of itself it wants the world to see. A lot of other countries have gone down this avenue in getting across the image they want to portray. The Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is simply doing what others have done before, including in neighbouring UAE.

However Saudi Arabia is a country which has a human rights record that Amnesty International describes as heinous. Riyadh is going to great lengths to improve its image, including through sport, yet human rights abuses such as beheadings as well as the imprisonment and detention of journalists and women's rights activists continue.

The United Nations blames the Saudi regime for the grotesque execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. The CIA blames Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of a respected journalist who had a history of daring to speak truth to power. For that he lost his life. It is rogue-state type behaviour that's tough to gloss over with any kind of sporting event.

However economic and geopolitical considerations means Riyadh continues to act with relative impunity. So racing is hardly singular is adopting a realpolitik approach to such matters. When so much of the thoroughbred industry here is bound up in the financial might of middle east rooted operations such as Darley, Juddmonte and Qatar Racing it is optimistic to expect anything else.

It is also expecting a lot of any racing professional to go on a solo about this. The caricature might be that trainers and jockeys are ordinarily hard pushed to even spell the word ethic. It's always easier to be ethical though when not having skin in the game. Ultimately it is owners who decide where they want their horses to run. Anyone developing a scruple about that can always be quickly replaced.

Such considerations make any political decision about when or where not to compete very personal. In many ways McIlroy's call to opt out was comparatively straightforward given that he basically had only himself to reckon with. The reality too is that he is the exception proving the rule about enough money in the pot being able to blinker most sportspeople to any external factors.

There has already been abundant evidence of that in relation to the Saudi strategy, one which allows the authorities to claim its focus on sport is part of modernisation and a new social awakening. It can also argue that criticism for trying to open the country up, having been previously criticised for not doing so, is contradictory.

No doubt the old argument about sport and politics not mixing will get trotted out too on the run up to the big day at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh next month. It's a dubious line at any time but especially so at an event that's part of a strategic policy designed to boost the image of a regime which is investing a lot in distraction.

That doesn't make those who will participate at the Saudi Cup complicit. For the vast majority it will be just a new and lucrative pit-stop on the global racing circuit. Reports on preparations appear to be positive. In all likelihood it will be a fresh, new and exciting experience for a lot of people. It could be very lucrative indeed for some.

But let's not pretend the Saudi Cup is something it isn't. This isn't part of some brave process about opening up Saudi Arabia and making it a more progressive society. Rather it's part of a narrative that pushes cosmetic steps such as lifting the ban on women driving cars or going to football matches while still repressing and imprisoning those who dare to work for meaningful social change.

It is carefully choreographed branding designed to boost Saudi Arabia's image in the wider world. The result will probably be spectacular. It will certainly have the racing world watching with intense interest on the last day of February. But don't kid yourself the specifics aren't part of a much larger picture of 'sportswashing.'

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