On Friday, July 12, former world champion Amir Khan will challenge Australian boxer Billy Dib for the vacant WBC International welterweight championship at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
The event, dubbed ‘Red Sea Fight Night,’ will play host to three other title fights: a heavyweight clash between Hughie Fury vs. Samuel Peter, an IBO world bantamweight championship bout between Prince Patel and Michell Banquez, and a clash between Dave Penalosa and Lerato Dlamini for the WBC silver featherweight championship. The event will also feature a ringside guest list packed with celebrities and combat sports athletes, including Lennox Lewis, former UFC champion Chuck Liddell and Israel Adesanya. Grammy nominated rapper Tyga is also expected to perform at the show.
In light of the recent controversies surrounding the Saudi Arabian monarchy, which includes the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in 2018, it appears that the Saudi government is attempting to use boxing as a tool for sports diplomacy and to whitewash its atrocious reputation for authoritarianism and human rights abuses, and are doing so with the help of one of the most recognizable names in boxing.
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sports, a pattern that contrasts the nation’s longstanding limitations on such activity. In 2016, the country set up a Sports Development Fund to support sports clubs and bolstered sports activity in the kingdom. The decision was taken by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who presided over the meeting. The objectives of the fund were to privatize football clubs to increase participation, promote new sports events, and add 40,000 jobs to the economic marketplace as part of Vision 2030, a development proposal written by an American consulting agency that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country would be free of its heavy reliance on oil.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in hosting large-scale sports events also fits into the broader Vision 2030 campaign, which seeks to present the country as a modernizing one. It also provides Bin Salman and those in power with a convenient way to divert the average citizen’s attention away from their abuses of power, as well as the kingdom’s aggressive stance on foreign policy in the Middle East region. This includes Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war with Yemen, which constitutes what UN leaders consider to be a humanitarian crisis. Therefore, the kingdom’s decision to host a high-level boxing event is rooted in Bin Salman’s interest in using sports as a strategic tool for political gain on both a domestic and international level.
Leveraging sports for political gain is a long-established tradition with authoritarian regimes. There exists a clear pattern where oppressive rulers have attempted to use sports (and their athletes) as pawns on the political chess board. Sports have long provided opportunities for improved public relations, political gain, and the strategic realization of particular soft-power goals.The upcoming Red Sea Fight Night event is a prime example of how that strategic trifecta can be achieved.
Speaking to a live audience in Jeddah earlier this week, Khan revealed that he dreams to have “many more fights in Saudi Arabia” and even admitted that he once had a negative perception of Saudi Arabia until he visited and realized that the kingdom was one of his “favourite countries.”
“I have options to fight in America, England and Europe, but I came to Saudi because I know the future is here,” Khan added, speaking on a comedy show on MBC 1.
While Khan may actually believe that the future of boxing lies in Saudi Arabia, his decision to actively promote a boxing show sponsored by the the Saudi government is a concerning decision with significant repercussions. He has even gone so far as to defend his decision to fight in Saudi Arabia despite human rights concerns:
“When I was there last, it had all changed. I started seeing women not wearing head scarves. Women were out driving,” Khan, who is reportedly earning £7million for the fight, told The Guardian. “They had a huge concert where everyone was dancing and enjoying themselves. I’d never seen that side of Saudi Arabia before. Maybe now they are changing to make it that new place where people can enjoy themselves and it’s fair for women. I think they’re trying to change now.
“They are throwing a lot of money on to the table and at the end of the day we are prizefighters. For me I would be stupid to not take this opportunity.”
Over the past couple of years, boxing has regained its position as a tool for sports diplomacy. While combat sports such as mixed martial arts overshadowed boxing over the past decade, there appears to be a growing trend for boxing to regain its historical influence in the sports realm. This trend is particularly noticeable among authoritarian regimes with a keen interest in using the sport for political gain. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Chechnya are just a few of the countries who have recently invested in boxing in the hopes of enhancing their tarnished reputations abroad.
In Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa followed up on his MMA promotion, Brave Combat Federation, with a boxing initiative titled KHK Boxing, which hosted its first event in December 2017. The decision to go forward with this new boxing venture highlights the importance of combat sports to the Bahraini government and its political agenda. In order to fabricate an image of peace and prosperity within the Island kingdom following the 2011 uprising, Bahrain began to invest in sports as way to garner state prestige on an international stage. To date, Bahrain has used the Formula-1 Grand Prix event, the Olympic Games, cycling, and MMA in its plans to cement legitimacy and enhance their image abroad. Prestigious events like the F-1 race helped turn Bahrain from an unknown island into a tourist destination in the Middle East, while simultaneously distracting from ongoing human rights abuse.
In October 2017, the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) announced that the WBSS Cruiserweight Final will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2018. The announcement, which was made following an agreement between The General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia and WBSS organizer and owner Comosa AG, took the combat sports community by surprise, as the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation had never shown exceptional interest in boxing.
While the event was eventually relocated to Moscow to host the tournament final between Ukraine’s Alexander Usyk and Russia’s Murat Gassiev, the Saudi Sports Authority immediately sought out an alternative boxing show to host in Jeddah. Enter the Super Boxing League (SBL), an Indian-based boxing league that consists of eight franchises, with each team comprised of six fighters (five male and one female boxer) competing in six different weight classes.
The company, which boasts Khan as its chairman and co-founder, reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority for Khan to headline a team event between fighters representing Pakistan and India. Originally, Khan was scheduled to headline the Red Sea Fight Night against Indian boxer Neeraj Goyat but was forced to find a replacement when Goyat was injured in a car accident. The 33-year-old Dib eventually replaced Goyat against Khan.
Before its cancelation, the Khan vs. Goyat bout was promoted as the first time that a British Pakistani fighter faced an Indian boxer in a professional bout. Khan wanted to use the fight as an opportunity to promote diplomacy between the two nations and use boxing to transcend geopolitical tension.
“The prime minister of Pakistan [Imran Khan] will be attending which is huge,” Khan told reporters in London last month. “It would be amazing if we can get the Prime Minister of England as well. I’m a British Pakistani and it’s great to have that backing from Pakistan.”
While Khan will no longer be able to achieve his ambition of boxing diplomacy between India and Pakistan, he still plans to compete in Saudi Arabia on Friday. By doing so, he joins the ranks of countless athletes who benefited from the wealth of an authoritarian regime.
Saudi Arabia has turned sports in a public relations machine, and Khan, in this particular case, its mascot.