Saudi Arabia’s Minster of Sports, HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, has extolled the value of turning the Kingdom into a sporting nation and destination for premier events.
Life in the Middle Eastern country has been transformed since sweeping reforms were set out in April 2016 by now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s revolutionary ‘Vision 2030’ plan. Athletic endeavours feature in a strategic framework designed to reduce dependence on oil and diversify the economy, plus develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism.
Prince Abdulaziz became Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Minister of Sports in February. The accomplished racing driver – who has competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, GT Masters, GT3 and Formula BMW – had previously held various positions in the General Sports Authority.
The 37-year-old has been mandated to create a vibrant sporting scene at home and transform perceptions abroad. Boxer Anthony Joshua’s mega rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr, Formula E’s Diriyah ePrix, the Supercoppa Italiano, expanded Supercopa de Espana, golf’s Saudi International and $20 million Saudi Cup – the world’s richest horse race – headline a raft of elite occasions successfully hosted in recent years.
Another landmark will be reached in 2021 with the inaugural running of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah. This move was met with scepticism by some international media, though Prince Abdulaziz believes a different attitude will prevail once Saudi Arabia has firmly established itself as a leading venue for international sports events and attracts more people to watch big events there.
“Hosting such events will help us stage different kinds of sports within the Kingdom and will increase the diversity and attention towards these sports, which will hopefully lead to Saudis participating more in the future. We saw the first tourist visa happening because of the Formula E event (staged in Riyadh in 2018),” he said in a wide-ranging interview for the latest episode of Frankly Speaking on Arab News.
“It is driven by His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman), who basically believes in the power of sports to change lives within the Kingdom and, within the Quality of Life program, to enhance and better the quality of life within the Kingdom,” he added.
With more than two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s, approximate, 35m population under the age of 35, it is vital that sports provides an influential role in boosting activity and promoting healthy lifestyles. Progress is being made in reaching a target of 40 per cent of the country being involved in in sports for more than 30 minutes per week by 2030, with a rise expected this year to 20 per cent from 2015’s 13 per cent.
The Ministry of Sports also encouraged participation, in a nation still dominated by ‘car culture’ and impacted by obesity, via TV programs and online schedules throughout the spring’s enforced lockdown because of Coronavirus.
“In the end sport will be a tool to benefit the people of Saudi Arabia and, Inshallah, to deal with these issues that we have,” he said.
Benefits further extend to the economy.
Prince Abdulaziz estimated sports’ contribution rose to SAR6.5 billion ($1.7bn) in 2019, almost trebling 2016’s SAR2.4bn ($640m). Saudi companies undertake 90 per cent of the business associated with sport in the Kingdom.
He said: “Some of them are small and medium companies today, but within three years they can become huge enterprises that are not only organising and setting up sports events, but are also getting into entertainment and culture and other events.
“If you look at the hospitality industry, if you look at the number of hotels that it engages, and if you look at the restaurants and the transportation and all of these things, they will benefit from these events that are hosted in Saudi Arabia.”
Another pillar of the Vision 2030 strategy is the role of women. A big increase has been witnessed in the number of females watching and participating in sports, including the launch of a 24-team women’s football league.
Prince Abdulaziz hailed the progress made to date and insisted further advances would be initiated in the “right way”.
He said: “All of our programs today that we do in the ministry of sports and the Federation is all about diversity and inclusion.
“They’re [women] finding support also from the players and their families. Things are changing and things are changing to the positive and we have to make sure that it changes in the right way.”
He added: “In 2015 we had zero female national teams. Today we have 23 national teams that are participating in the name of the country.”
A separation between sports and politics is also key. Competitors from countries Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties would be welcomed for the 2034 Asian Games and if their 2027 Asian Cup bid is successful.
“We already hosted a lot of international events and Asian events and there are participants from countries we don’t have diplomatic relations with,” said Prince Fahad bin Jalawi bin Abdulaziz, Vice President of the Olympic Committee. “We’re talking about sports and sport people are welcome to come to Saudi Arabia in any event.”