Glitz, Glamor and Geopolitics: Saudi's juggling act
While Saudi Arabia strives to captivate the world with its lavish events and lofty national aspirations, it remains unable to mask the stark challenges faced by the kingdom and the wider region
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As Israel continued to bombard Gaza just three weeks after a devastating incursion by Hamas militants, some of the world’s most famous faces flocked to Saudi Arabia to attend a much-anticipated heavyweight boxing match.
The star-studded event featured a showdown between WBO heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, serving as the centerpiece of the extravagant Riyadh Season winter festival's grand opening this past weekend. It provided the hosts with an opportunity to display their opulence, featuring bespoke arenas, luxurious VIP enclosures, a glamorous opening ceremony, and a dramatic boxing ring emerging slowly from beneath the stage floor.
The so-called “Battle of the Baddest” marked the halfway point in Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s 14-year plan to remake the kingdom’s economy by 2030—a plan characterized by projects like a $500 billion effort to build a futuristic city called Neom on the Red Sea, as well as unprecedented investments in golf, football, esports and gaming, and entertainment.
This event was among the cornerstones of Saudi Arabia's ambitious sports strategy, aimed at positioning the kingdom as a premier tourism destination and a global sports hub, including the realm of combat sports.
Nevertheless, as dazzling as the Saudi extravaganza was to behold, it could not conceal the realities confronting the kingdom and the broader region.
During the event, reports emerged that Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman—the brother of Crown Prince bin Salman, known as MBS— is expected to visit Washington on Monday for talks with senior Biden administration officials. The talks come amid U.S. and Saudi Arabia concerns that the fighting between Israel and Hamas could spill over into a regional war.
Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal—the Chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) currently probing the PGA Tour and LIV Golf agreement—was among the group of senators who met with MBS in the Saudi capital Riyadh several days ago. He later told The New York Times that Saudi officials warned an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza would be “extremely harmful” to the region.
Blumenthal’s message came as tensions continued to rise throughout Gaza. The besieged enclave has faced constant bombardment from Israeli airstrikes for three weeks while essentials like water and fuel are scarce, furthering the humanitarian crisis. Two days ago—approximately 24 hours before Ngannou faced off with Fury in Saudi Arabia—Israel intensified its siege of Gaza by disrupting communications and plunging the enclave into a communications blackout.
At least 7,950 people have been killed and more than 20,000 others injured in Israeli attacks on Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the latest figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah.
U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly voiced his support for Israel’s right to self-defence following the Hamas attack, stating recently that the “United States has Israel’s back.” On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been among Arab countries that have condemned the targeting of civilians in Gaza and denounced the siege, underscoring the differences between the two allied nations.
Prior to the Oct. 7 attack, Saudi Arabia was discussing a potential deal whereby the kingdom would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a myriad of benefits from the U.S., including support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program. Those talks are now on hold amid the ongoing conflict.
Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets around the globe last weekend to call for an immediate ceasefire after Israel expanded its bombardment and incursions into Gaza. The protests took place in major world cities, including Berlin, London, New York and Toronto. The global show of solidarity has led to a tonal shift from Western politicians, with European Union leaders now appealing for humanitarian “pauses” after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen first voiced unequivocal support for Israel.
Saudi officials also denounced Israel’s siege and called for a ceasefire — even as they tried to keep the kingdom’s national narrative focused on MBS’s ambitions.
Last week, Saudi hosted its annual investment spectacle dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” which drew a gaggle of billionaires, tech titans and grifters, including former White House envoy Jared Kushner and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon. Days later, the kingdom assembled a cast of characters like Cristiano Ronaldo, The Undertaker, Kanye West and Eminem to watch boxing in the desert.
On Nov. 4, the WWE will return to Riyadh to host Crown Jewel, the annually recurring event that takes place as part of the 10-year partnership between the entertainment brand and the Saudi government. Vince McMahon, the Executive Chairman of TKO, the parent company of both WWE and UFC, was present at the recent Ngannou vs. Fury event and announced that Riyadh's new arena would become the new “home” for WWE.
“Everything that is the best in the world, it’s going to be here,” McMahon said “This is our home now.”
While Saudi Arabia strives to captivate the world with its lavish events and lofty national aspirations, it remains unable to mask the stark challenges faced by the kingdom and the wider region. These include the looming specter of a regional conflict, ongoing Middle East instability, and the elevation of regional rivals such as Qatar, who has emerged as a key player in the ongoing conflict. This juxtaposition between grandeur and adversity underscores the delicate balance the kingdom must maintain on the world stage.
In the midst of extravagant spectacles, the kingdom seems unable to escape the shadows of a region in turmoil, serving as a stark reminder that even the most opulent events cannot eclipse the realities of our time.
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