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First Saudi Tour confirmed for 2020

Joe Robinson
29 Oct 2019

New race certain to raise further sportswashing questions

Saudi Arabia will host its first major cycling event in 2020 as Tour de France organiser ASO announced a new five-day stage race for next season. 

The oil-rich Middle Eastern state will host the 2.1 category race between 4th and 8th February with the race set to take place around the capital, Riyadh, and its surrounding desert hills.

Announcing the race, CEO of ASO Yann Le Moenner claimed this new race would further develop the growing racing scene in the Middle East. 

'We are involved in the emergence of a new racing scene in the Middle East, which corresponds to the riders’ demands at the beginning of the year. The creation of the Saudi Tour and its sustainable installation in the calendar is part of this movement,' said Le Moenner.

'This new race both represents an exciting organisational challenge, a coherent sporting event for an entire category of riders and a nice opportunity for the television viewers who follow the race to discover new landscapes. This is also for us an occasion to contribute to the development of cycling across the Kingdom.

'It is hoped that the inaugural edition will bring varied racing for sprinters and puncheurs, combining urban racing circuits and canyon landscapes. The Saudi Tour is a great opportunity to publicise the country’s varied territories and historic sites and to let visitors discover our sense of hospitality.'

'For this first edition, world-class riders from around the world will ride on the surrounding roads of the capital, Riyadh,' said Al-Kraidees.

'This initiative fits perfectly with the ambition of Saudi Arabia to promote the Kingdom beyond its borders while promoting sport and especially cycling.'

Besides organising larger events like the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana and Paris-Roubaix, ASO already has involvement in the Middle East acting as organiser of the Tour of Oman. This combines with the RCS organised UAE Tour to make up the early season Middle Eastern racing calendar.

While the existing races are often criticised for negligible crowds and predictable racing, it is undeniable that questions will be raised around ASO's decision to organise a race in Saudi Arabia.

The nation's current regime under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salam has been highly criticised for its human rights record, most recently over his strong links to the murder of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last October.

While Bin Salam has pledged social reforms such as lifting the ban on women being able to drive and opening the country to high-profile western music acts as part of his 'Vision 2030' plan, groups such as Amnesty International have remained unconvinced. 

When British heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua announced his decision to fight there in September, head of campaigns for Amnesty International Felix Jakens claimed the fighter was being duped as part of the regime's attempt to sportswash its image.

'Despite the hype over supposed reforms, Saudi Arabia is actually in the midst of a sweeping human rights crackdown, with women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community being targeted,' Jakens told The Guardian.

'Civil society has also been silenced in Saudi Arabia. Anyone critical of the regime has been exiled, arrested or threatened. There isn’t any semblance of free speech or the right to protest.

'There’s been no justice over the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen is still carrying out indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals and market places,' Jakens added.

It is likely that any high-profile cyclist who decides to ride the inaugural Saudi Tour will be met with similar questions.

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