Saudi Tour adds cycling to kingdom's expanding sports portfolio

The race is the latest event to join Saudi Arabia's suddenly busy sporting calendar, seen by some critics as 'sportswashing' its image.

The company that runs the Tour de France (ASO) is helping launch a four-day race, which will be held on a star-shaped course around capital Riyadh.   -  Getty Images

The company that runs the Tour de France (ASO) is helping launch a four-day race in Saudi Arabia in February dubbed the Saudi Tour.

“This initiative is perfectly in line with Saudi Arabia's ambition to promote the kingdom beyond its borders through sport and more particularly cycling,” said Saudi Federation President Sabah Al-Kraidees.

The race is the latest event to join Saudi Arabia's suddenly busy sporting calendar, seen by some critics as 'sportswashing' its image.

The Saudis have faced intense diplomatic fallout over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi which took place in the conservative kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Saudi rulers, also under fire for the war in neighbouring Yemen, have utilised sport as a tool to try and soften their international image and to provide a showcase, they claim, for reforms inside the oil-rich state.

In February, the Saudis hosted a first European Tour golf event.

In July, British boxer Amir Khan won the WBC international welterweight title with a fourth-round stoppage of Australian Billy Dib in Jeddah.

The Dakar Rally, also run by ASO, will be raced in Saudi Arabia in January.

Former heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury will launch his wrestling career at the WWE 'Crown Jewel' in Riyadh on Thursday.

When the December heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah was announced in August, it brought accusations of “sportswashing” from the human rights organisation Amnesty.

“If Anthony Joshua fights Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia, it's likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to 'sportswash' their severely tarnished image,” said Felix Jakens, Amnesty UK's head of campaigns.

The Saudi Tour will run from February 4 to 8 on a star-shaped course around the capital Riyadh, ASO said on Tuesday. It described “roads often exposed to the wind” and stages both for sprinters and for punchers.

The race is part of the Middle Eastern sequence at the beginning of the season. ASO has been organising the Tour of Oman since 2010 and it is scheduled for next year from 11 to 16 February.