For a nation which would like you to think it is enlightened and intelligent these days, Saudi Arabia’s plan to create a playground state within its borders, where international sport is staged and Western laws and rights apply, is grim beyond belief.
In the real Saudi Arabia, the usual rules will apply and – unless there is a seismic change ahead – the misogyny, casual brutality and nasty little secrets of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime will go on.
Those who transgress his codes will continue to know that they risk a fate like Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and dissident who was seized, murdered and dismembered with a bone-saw at his country’s consulate in Istanbul just over a year ago.
Money is no object when it comes to using sport’s appeal to cover up human rights abuses like that. The Saudis’ great friends from Abu Dhabi have taught us so. ‘MBS’ – as the Crown Prince likes colloquially to be known – will be signing up public affairs experts to help develop the Neom city-state: his great con in the desert.
He’ll pay them handsomely. Saudi sovereign wealth eclipses even the UAE and Qatar’s.
Mercifully, we have organisations like the Pulitzer Centre to tell the real story about Saudi Arabia.
The story of scores of women who have fled slavery and abuse by violent husbands, brothers and fathers, in a state where they need men’s permission to marry, leave prison or a domestic abuse shelter.
The story of shadowy surveillance by men in SUVs and threats against their families, both of which they have encountered in countries offering them asylum.
The terrifying realities for Rana and Farah – not their real names – was related by writer Sarah Aziza in a searing report for The New Yorker.
Both women had fled Saudi Arabia and sought asylum in Berlin when the malign threats began – messages on Twitter and Snapchat from pro-government accounts, warning them that they’d pay for disgracing the reputation of Saudi Arabia. Indications from back home that authorities had been interrogating people associated with them.
As Khashoggi’s death demonstrated, MBS does not like dissent. He happened to feel that the significant increase in Saudis seeking asylum after he took power – 175 in 2015 had grown to more than 1 200 by 2017 – constituted dissent.
‘Before MBS, most Saudis had a general sense of where the red lines were – you stayed away from them, you would probably be safe,’ Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi academic and senior fellow at Georgetown University, told Aziza.
‘But there is no way to know where the red line is any more. The message from the government now is – you don’t even have to be political to be targeted. Just being slightly outspoken, even just on social or religious issues, could make you a target, and you could be harmed.’
It is hard to believe that erudite, enlightened Anthony Joshua is not aware of all this. But the money has talked – just as it has for Sky Sports, who are charging a record £25 fee to view Saturday’s fight.
They have rejected the stand taken by Spanish state broadcaster RTVE which, on human rights grounds, has refused to bid for the Spanish football Super Cup which the Saudis have paid millions to stage. It’s always been this way.
When entertainment capital Sun City was created within apartheid-era South Africa, the United Nations introduced a boycott of the place. A number of big name artists – Elton John, Queen, Rod Stewart – performed there anyway.
Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn has pleaded ignorance about bringing his man here.
Asked by the Associated Press earlier this year if there was anywhere he would not take Joshua – North Korea perhaps? – he did not seem remotely aware of how bad it all looked.
‘I don’t believe there’s been a demand for fight in North Korea,’ replied Hearn. ‘I think that’s a funny old question.’