When the Saudi Arabian Tennis Association announced that its new ambassador would be Rafael Nadal, he said this about the country: “Wherever you look, you can see growth and development.” Meanwhile, 27 and 21 year old Abdullah al Derazi sit and Jalal Labbad have been in prison for years, awaiting their respective death sentences. The crime: participating in anti-government protests as a minor. These two cases are the latest to come to light about a country with a grave history of oppression, torture, killings and even suspicion of crimes against humanity. All this while the crown prince and de facto leader Mohamed bin Salmán invests millions in financing sporting events and renowned athletes in order to improve his reputation and gain legitimacy on the international stage.
While Saudi Arabia traditionally tops the worst human rights rankings, the outlook for 2024 is bleaker than ever. Lina Hathloul, head of the political advocacy group of the Saudi NGO ALQST, denounces that the country has become a dictatorship in which all institutions have been destroyed. “It's a police state run by a single person, where you don't know what the red lines are, when you're going to be arrested and why.” And when they arrest you, they can put you in unofficial detention centers where they torture you,” he says. “People have been arrested simply for posting tweets calling for the release of activists. Also because I talked about unemployment. “Anything that is seen as criticism of government policy will be criminalized,” he warns from his exile in Brussels.
Write to the heir and demand the release of imprisoned activists. Al Ghamdi only had 10 followers on his account. “Virtually all activists, independent journalists or writers have been subjected to arbitrary detentions and unfair trials,” claims Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International Spain, who also recalls the ban on the creation of parties, unions or other independent groups and so on demonstrations are prohibited .
According to Amnesty, Saudi Arabia arrested and imprisoned at least 68 people in 2023 for crimes against freedom of expression, assembly and association, but it is not known how many fill the country's prisons. Between 2018 and 2023, 556 prisoners were executed, mostly by beheading. 2022 was the record year with 196 deaths. Between January and October 2023, the Saudi justice system ended the lives of 112 people.
In roughly the same years, the country also reached record levels of investment to brighten its image through the sponsorship of sporting events or top athletes: 6.3 billion euros since 2021, according to an investigation by The Guardian; the equivalent of the GDP of countries like Montenegro or Barbados.
These multi-million dollar investments are part of the practice of sportwashing (the English term) or image washing through sport and come from the so-called Public Investment Fund. With assets of around 600 billion euros, it is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world and was created in 2016 as part of Bin Salmán's ambitious internal reform plan called Vision 2030, which consists of a series of measures to make the country less dependent on oil. “It is trying to cover up everything that is happening in the country, because this ambitious economic plan has nothing to do with social or political changes,” explains Beltrán.
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From there came the astronomical amounts paid to Rafa Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar, but also to the Spanish Football Association for the celebration of the Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, to the Spanish golfer Jon Rahm or to the professional golf association ( PGA), the world's most important players in this sport. This is also where the funds for the organization of the 2029 Asian Winter Games, which will take place in Saudi Arabia, come from, although there is practically no snow in this country. “The prince has done everything possible to regain respect on the international stage. Of course, none of this absolves him from grossly violating the human rights of his people,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch.
In fact, Saudi Arabia knew how to play its cards so well that it completely changed its reputation within a few years. When journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered and murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the international community turned its back on Riyadh. Even Joe Biden encouraged turning the country into a “pariah” shortly before his inauguration as President of the United States in 2021. In 2022, the world forgot Khashoggi and even Biden visited Riyadh to improve relations.
Spanish tennis player Rafael Nada, new ambassador of the Saudi Tennis Association, during a visit to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) in December 2023. Jorge Ferrari (2.8 Pro/Jorge Ferrari)
Because while tourism and sports promotion shows the friendliest side of the country, it also bears fruit on a geopolitical level. For example, when the West began to need more oil production after Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, they turned to the Saudis. Hathloul points out that the United States will make the concessions Bin Salman wants, whether on arms deals or not, condemning the human rights situation, as long as it normalizes relations with its major ally Israel, which was about to happen before the Hamas attack into Israeli territory on October 7th.
“Bin Salmán has no legitimacy; He has the government because his father gave him the title of crown prince even though he shouldn't be. He had to imprison all his cousins, the Saudi people did not elect him. “The only thing that really allows her to be in power is that the West has accepted it,” analyzes Hathloul, who is also the sister of the activist Loujain Hathloul, who has been imprisoned for several years for her advocacy women's right to drive.
Meanwhile, exiled activists and human rights organizations continue to denounce Saudi crimes and call on figures like Nadal to use their influence so that the situation of women is not forgotten – “we are talking about a country where women are legally subject to their husbands.” Guardian,” Benchemsi recalls. Or the massacre of Ethiopian migrants that Saudi police carried out on the border with Yemen last summer. “They shot at unarmed women, men and children who were walking towards their border. They killed hundreds of them, which we call a possible crime against humanity,” denounces the HRW representative.
Or to save lives, like that of the young people Al Derazi and Labbad, who are facing imminent execution, that of Professor Al Ghamdi, or that of Manahel al Otaibi, a 29-year-old sports coach who was arrested for wearing her abaya incorrectly . (the loose dress that avoids the shapes of female bodies) and for publishing feminist messages. She has been missing since November and no one in the international community has raised the alarm. “It is very sad to see that someone like Nadal has accepted that his silence is bought,” laments Hathloul.
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