It’s a grim state of affairs. Tomorrow Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua, both multi-millionaires, clash in Saudi Arabia to contest the unified heavyweight championship of the world. The Saudi regime pays massive sums of money to stage such events, using the glitz and glamour of international sport to distract from their abysmal human rights record. But this isn’t the first time the regime has attempted to leverage sport to score points in the realm of foreign relations, nor is it the first time they’ve turned to big time boxing. Bottom line: Usyk vs Joshua II is more than just another heavyweight championship fight; it’s another win for the Saudi sportswashing machine.
As journalist Shireen Ahmed explains, “Sportswashing is when a country uses sports disingenuously to launder its reputation globally, and simultaneously distract from what is usually an abysmal human-rights record.” And while all nations perpetrate human rights infractions to some degree or another, Saudi Arabia is in the running for the world’s most brazen violator of such rights, as it persecutes and tortures its own people, and engages in a long-running war with the neighboring country of Yemen.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman started pursuing high-profile sporting events in 2016 as part of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 reforms. Although sport is indeed mentioned in Vision 2030, the state’s listed policy objectives revolve around “participation in sport and athletic activities” and leading “in selected sports regionally and globally.” Throwing massive amounts of money at foreign promoters and athletes seems antithetical to such goals, but in fact that is how the policy has played out. Which really isn’t surprising given that it’s less about athletics and more about getting people to forget the horrors instigated by the Saudi regime, both at home and abroad.
World Wrestling Entertainment makes somewhere between forty and fifty million dollars per annum from their 2018 deal with the regime. That same year, Supercoppa Italiana – a football event between the champions of Serie A and Coppa Italia – was held in Jeddah. A busy year of sportswashing was capped off with big-time boxing’s debut in Jeddah, featuring Callum Smith and George Groves in the finale of the World Boxing Super Series. The regime then took their boxing-related sportswashing to new heights in 2020, when they paid handsomely to have Eddie Hearn and Matchroom stage Andy Ruiz vs Anthony Joshua II. According to Forbes, Joshua was paid the outlandish sum of sixty million dollars for the contest. In the years since, Saudi Arabia has continued to finance its sportswashing operation through big deals with Formula 1 and the golfers of the LIV Tour.
This is just part of Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing portfolio and it illustrates the massive size of the operation. But the scale of these efforts is only proportional to what the regime is trying to make you forget. Simply put, there’s plenty to launder. And when athletes, leagues, and promoters agree to participate in Saudi Arabia’s obvious sportswashing activities, they become complicit in a long-list of human rights abuses.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni Civil War, which began in 2014, is well documented. A Saudi-backed coalition has wreaked havoc on life in Yemen, and is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians since 2015. But the gravity of the suffering taking place there is far worse than any statistic can convey. Yemen’s infrastructure is shattered. Food and water are scarce. Thousands have died, and will continue to die, as an indirect consequences of the conflict, and it is children that dominate the death toll. The 2021 UN Development Program Report found that “a Yemeni child under the age of five dies every nine minutes” due to the Saudi backed war effort.
Reporting on Saudi Arabia’s abuses is a highly dangerous undertaking. Prominent Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was openly critical of the country’s assault on Yemen and in 2018 he was assassinated for his efforts. A proper investigation into the role of the crown in Khashoggi’s murder has never been conducted, though few doubt who was behind it. The Saudi regime held their own official investigation of the crime, the result of which satisfied no one. Five individuals were sentenced to death, but the court denied that the assassination was premeditated and exonerated two of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s aides.
Agnes Callamard, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, ridiculed the Saudi inquiry. “The execution of Jamal Khashoggi demanded an investigation into the chain of command to identify the masterminds, as well as those who incited, allowed or turned a blind eye to the murder, such as the crown prince. The hitmen are guilty [and] sentenced to death [while the] masterminds not only walk free [but are] barely touched by the investigation and the trial. That is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery.”
In addition to such outrages, there are also the ongoing and widespread human rights violations that Saudi Arabia continues to inflict within its own borders, including the suppression of women’s rights, the use of torture, the exploitation of migrant workers, and the widespread denial of the basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and belief.
Despite all this, it’s not really surprising that Eddie Hearn, the Chairman of Matchroom Sport, would return to Saudia Arabia. When Matchroom agreed to take the Ruiz vs Joshua rematch to Saudia Arabia, Hearn dismissed all criticism, ignorantly and egotistically telling the Associated Press: “Every promoter under the sun has been trying to land a mega fight in the Middle East for many, many years… I’m the one that’s done it, and with that comes a little bit of a stick because we’re the trailblazers.” This statement ignores the real reason why Amnesty International, among others, criticized Hearn’s decision, namely Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, and the idea that it was acceptable for athletes and their teams to rake in millions of dollars in blood money.
Although Oleksandr Usyk has said little about these concerns publicly, Hearn has intimated that Usyk vs Joshua II was headed to Jeddah at the Ukrainian’s request. “Usyk’s team was not really prepared to go to London when there was four or five times the amount of money to go elsewhere,” Hearn told The Sun. Meanwhile Anthony Joshua has pled ignorance of sportswashing. “All that allegation stuff, for me, I’m not caught up in any of that,” Joshua said at a June press conference. “I’m here to have a good time, mix with the local people, bring entertainment to Saudi.”
Hearn routinely justifies hosting events in Saudi Arabia by claiming that boxing is a particularly dangerous sport and he must consider the future financial stability of the fighters. That argument might hold water if the athletes in questions were up-and-comers, struggling to pay their gym fees, but these are superstars, multi-millionaires. They’ve already pocketed more money than their average fellow citizen makes in a lifetime and will multiply that figure significantly on Saturday. These men don’t need the money and neither does Hearn.
And what of Usyk, the proud Ukrainian? Much has been made of the world champion boxing in the “shadow of war,” and no doubt Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine deserves the condemnation of the world. But what of the thousands of civilians killed by the Saudi-backed coalition? The children dying of malnourishment in Yemen due to the ongoing war? Does the shadow of Yemeni suffering not also encompass this fight?
Usyk vs Joshua II will be streamed worldwide by DAZN, which is also complicit in this fiasco. Few platforms can amplify a sportswashing campaign to this degree and, likewise, few have the power to curtail the reach of such reprehensible events. But DAZN is going with the flow, helping Saudi Arabia obscure its human rights records on the grandest of scales.
And what of the fans who intend to watch? My home country of Canada provides the Saudi regime with weapons. So has the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Knowing what we know, can we then so easily distance ourselves from the abuses of Saudi Arabia while sitting in the comfortable safety of our homes? Can we really pretend these things aren’t happening?
Fight fans could do worse than to contact their local representatives and let them know of their displeasure, and refuse to watch. Such actions do send a message, believe it or not, while also demanding some degree of accountability and minimum human rights standards for the boxing industry. It’s really not much to ask.
Beyond that, do not overlook the undeniable fact that the staging of Usyk vs Joshua II in Saudi Arabia is happening for no other reason than to try and make you, and millions of other sports fans, forget the ongoing violence and suffering perpetuated by this reprehensible monarchy. But the belief here is that the blood of innocent victims cannot, and will not, wash away so easily. Further, many will not forget that their blood is now also on the hands of everyone who has worked to make possible tomorrow’s championship boxing card at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah. — Greggory Ross