Horse racing
Representational image. Image Credit: Pixabay

Dubai: It is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia, just like the UAE and other Arab countries, has promoted the culture of sport among its youth in a bid to influence their sporting development.

Football, basketball and athletics are among the most popular disciplines that have caught the imagination of its people while there has long been a special emphasis on championing the cause of people with special needs, who are interested in sport.

This has been Saudi Arabia’s legacy for over 60 years.

However, more recently the country that boasts the second highest oil reserves in the world, has upped its game and taken its sporting ambitions to a whole new level.

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(L-R) Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen, Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's German driver Sebastian Vettel celebrate on the podium after the Formula One Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring circuit in Mogyorod near Budapest, Hungary, on August 4, 2019. / AFP / Andrej ISAKOVIC Image Credit: AFP

Last week, the Saudi Arabia Jockey Club turned the world of horse racing upside down when it revealed that it would host the richest race on the planet, the $20 million Saudi Cup at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh in February 2020.

A day later, Saudi Arabia shook the foundations of boxing when it announced that the much-anticipated heavyweight boxing rematch between former world champion Anthony Joshua and Mexican Andy Ruiz Jr would be held in Diriyah in Riyadh.

That’s not all. Since May, Saudi Arabian sports authorities have shown a big interest in joining the high-profile Formula One circuit as part of its Vision 2030 plan.

If 2018 was a breakthrough year for Saudi sport, when it staged a Formula E event in the historical Ad Diriyah district and then a World Boxing Super Series event, then 2019 and 2020 promise to propel the country into the upper echelons of world sport.

Heavyweight boxer Andy Ruiz. Image Credit: Reuters

In July, British boxer Amir Khan stopped Australian Billy Dib in the fourth round of a much-hyped welterweight title fight that formed part of the Jeddah Season Festival.

A high calibre of boxers have used the Saudi stage as a platform to leverage their careers. Most notably newcomer Callum Smith, who shocked fellow-Brit and WBA world super-middleweight champion George Groves to win the Muhammad Ali Trophy in front of thousands of delirious fans at the Al-Jawhara Stadium at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah last September.

However, the proposed Joshua vs Ruiz fight on December 7 will be the biggest sporting event that the country has hosted and unequivocally put Saudi Arabia on the world sporting map.

Eddie Hearn, Sports Promoter & Managing Director of Matchroom Sports Ltd, believes that the fight can be of the scale of two iconic boxing events featuring the late, great Muhammad Ali — 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle where he fought George Foreman and the following year’s Thrilla in Manila where Ali beat Joe Frazier.

Amir Khan
Amir Khan Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

“If Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region start investing in sport the whole game will change,” Hearns said during a press conference earlier this week. “If people aren’t on board with that, and don’t realise the potential for sport in those regions, we are all idiots … 70 per cent of public there is under 24.

“Every promoter in the world has tried to land a mega fight in these territories — Al Haymon, Bob Arum, Golden Boy — but we’re the first ones to actually do it. I want to make sure we deliver for Saudi Arabia. If they are willing to make the financial investment in the sport that’s great for me.”

Hearn also defended the derision he has received for choosing the Middle East as a neutral venue.

“The reason I’m getting the criticism is that no other promoter has been able to deliver it,” he said. “Because every promoter has tried. They will tell you all the proposals they get for fights. Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao, Deontay Wilder v Joshua.

“Every promoter is trying to land a major fight in this region, and we’ve done it. The proof will be in the pudding and that’s the objective now, to provide an event on 7 December where everybody turns round and says “Wow!

“I can’t tell you that money had nothing to do with it but it was more about the infrastructure and the fact they have done it before,” added Hearn.

“We had to be very comfortable because we knew there would be criticism. And we also looked at the bigger picture. If he (Joshua) wins this fight it opens up a whole new world for him and for boxing. It could change the sport forever.

“He’s always had the mindset of boxing all round the world. I expect him to box not just in Saudi Arabia but in Nigeria and in China. That’s an iconic global fighter, not just someone who boxes in Cardiff and Madison Square Garden.”

All eyes on Saudi Arabia!