Saudi Arabia is experiencing an unprecedented socio-economic transformation—one in which sports plays a key role in the Kingdom’s monumental diversification efforts, with current and future generations set to prosper as a result.
In the span of just a few short years, Saudi Arabia has hosted some of the most celebrated sporting events in the world. This week alone, Riyadh calls itself home to two of the most prominent international sporting events: namely, the Saudi Cup - the world’s most valuable horserace - and the 2021 Diriyah ePrix.
These events build on the strong track record the Kingdom has developed through hosting other mega-sporting events such as the Spanish and Italian Super Cups, the Dakar Rally, and the World Heavyweight Boxing championship.
Hosting the most prestigious international sporting events gives Saudi Arabia an indispensable opportunity to cut through the noise of global media and provide the international community with an unfettered window into the richness and vibrancy inherent to Saudi culture, values, and heritage.
In doing so, the Kingdom is able to showcase and empower its most valuable asset in pursuit of national development – no, not oil – but the country’s ambitious youthful majority. Unlike various approaches to sports in the region, Riyadh’s approach transcends an import-oriented model, by organically integrating aspects of Saudi culture, youth, and heritage into the planning and execution of major sporting events, unleashing local potential in the process.
Last week’s Saudi Cup serves as a prime example: While Saudi-owned Mishriff won the $20 million Cup, the event’s cultural dimension stood out as a clear winner in parallel. Various elements of the Saudi cultural identity were celebrated, spanning crucial sub-sectors such as fashion, music, culinary arts, music, and heritage. Elite equestrian talent on the track was matched with equally impressive displays of local creative cultural talent on the sidelines, with designers leading the burgeoning Saudi fashion industry taking center stage.
Beyond establishing itself as a regional and global sporting hub, these efforts offer a clear indication that Riyadh views investments in sport as a crucial part of the Vision 2030 plan, and the country’s reform-based trajectory more broadly. But how deep is the link between strategic sports diplomacy and national development? What are the strategic byproducts and how do they relate to Riyadh’s effort to diversify and transition into a knowledge-based economy?
Skeptics may deem investments in the Saudi sports sector as a luxury, but when looked at analytically, a strategic approach to sports generates a plethora of socio-economic and geopolitical byproducts that elevate the sector to the heart of national development. The efficacy of sports diplomacy is encompassed in the fact that it, like music, represents a universal language that overcomes cross-cultural variance.
Top-down sports development has been coupled with youth-led fashion diplomacy to form a potent mix of Saudi soft power – one uniquely positioned to propel the successful export of Saudi culture to nations and minds across the globe. Geopolitically, this creates a virtuous cycle: Effective sports diplomacy begets the amplification of other, equally effective levers of Saudi soft-power in the process, simultaneously building Saudi international ties and local sector-based development.
Soft-power projection aside, sports play an integral role in accelerating economic diversification, promoting public health, and increasing Saudi economic competitiveness – goals central to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. But how exactly? Put simply, hosting major sporting events showcases Saudi Arabia’s economic potential, value-driven inclusivity, and cultural attractiveness to the broader international community, thereby increasing inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) as well as the visibility and attractiveness of the Saudi tourism sector.
Events like the Saudi Cup and the Diriyah Formula E fill an indispensable social function: They empower the country’s youthful majority with substantive platforms for creative expression and social innovation. Doing so promotes social cohesion such that tradition and modernity coalesce to form a vibrant Saudi national identity – one that expresses inimitable individuality within a collective celebration of heritage.
The sector’s biggest social strides are best seen in the realm of Saudi female empowerment – another key priority in the country’s Vision 2030. Female participation in sports has skyrocketed by almost 150 percent since 2015. In the same period, the number of official female national teams representing the Kingdom went from zero to 23.
Leadership has also witnessed a positive uptick in female representation and inclusion, with over 12 Saudi women now in prominent international sporting positions. Most recently, the first official Women’s Football League launched, with over 24 local clubs competing at the national level. These strides are largely unprecedented and are only set to increase in both size and magnitude as reforms unfold.
Within the span of just four years, the sector’s contribution to the GDP soared from $640 million in 2016 to $1.7 billion in 2019. Evidently, quantitative metrics can only go so far – effective sports diplomacy and a flourishing sports sector triggers positive spill-over in other sectors of the economy such as tourism, public health, national identity, social cohesion, and, most importantly, youth empowerment, deeming its relative impact far more substantive than estimates suggest. The Kingdom’s successful bid to host the 2034 Asian Games is the most recent testament to the sector’s long-term strategic trajectory – one that is inextricably tied to national development and will benefit future generations to come.
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