The August humidity here in Jeddah is so oppressive that “Rage by the Red Sea”, as Anthony Joshua’s Saturday night rematch with Oleksandr Usyk is billed, must be staged indoors to protect the boxers’ health. But Eddie Hearn, watching Joshua train in the comfort of an air-conditioned gym, gives little sign of feeling the heat. In 2019, the promoter found himself pilloried for his fighter’s first Saudi expedition, mocked up as Edward of Arabia and condemned as a cynic trading in blood money. This time, he cannot help but notice how such barbs have vanished into the desert night.
“I’ve had zero stick this time around,” Hearn smiles. “Last time, I had someone from Sky News asking, ‘Are you happy with yourself, staging this fight?’ I replied, ‘Hang on a minute, Sky are showing this on pay-per-view.’ That bit didn’t get aired. I told the BBC, ‘You’re out here driving people to your app. You’re all hypocrites.’ I decided that I was going to take the opportunity. Now, nobody has really criticised.”
So emboldened is he by the lack of blowback, he makes an eye-catching declaration. “Even if I felt it was morally incorrect to come here,” he says. “I would still come.”
There you have it, in the starkest terms: an admission that scruples are no longer any barrier to cashing in the Saudi coin. The poster-boys for LIV Golf, the breakaway bankrolled by the kingdom, would do well to take note. Where Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter indulge in arrant tripe about “growing the game”, Hearn at least cannot be faulted for his candour. “We should never – and I think this is where golf has made a big mistake – shirk from talking about the money,” he says. “They should be saying, ‘I’m being paid an absolute fortune, and I quite fancy playing where I choose.’”
Joshua is understood to be earning at least £50 million for this fight, a staggering sum given that he is the challenger, not the defending champion. Then again, the Saudis have just paid almost the same amount to persuade Henrik Stenson, a 46-year-old with seven missed cuts in his past nine majors, to renounce the Ryder Cup captaincy. It is de rigueur to describe such extravagance as “sportswashing”, where the money essentially acts as detergent in laundering the regime’s dismal human rights record. Except Professor Simon Chadwick, a leading expert in sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris, argues that there is a more complex process at work.
“My view is that economically and politically, there is an eastward pivot,” he says. “It’s an inconvenient truth for the West that our power has diminished over the past 20 years. This is why this liberal and simplistic use of the phrase ‘sportswashing’ is extremely unhelpful. This is not about trying to cleanse your image, it’s not about Saudi Arabia trying to look better than the rest of the world. It’s deeper and more fundamental than that.”
Saudi Arabia, Prof Chadwick explains, is in the grip of a certain status anxiety. Where Qatar, against whom it imposed a diplomatic blockade until last year, has spent over £200 billion on hosting the World Cup, the giant of the Gulf is jittery about being left behind.
“Strategically, the Saudis are playing catch-up. They are spending what they are to keep up with their neighbours. It’s known as mimetic isomorphism. Essentially, you replicate what another country has done, because you believe it will be beneficial. It’s characteristic of relations in the region. There’s almost a soft war being fought, in terms of the accumulation of sporting and cultural capital.”
The evidence is everywhere you look. Jeddah, which once owed its international profile to being the gateway to Mecca, is poised to host the heavyweight championship of the world. Riyadh has lodged a bid to stage the Asian Games in 2030. Outlandish as it might appear, there are even plans afoot to bring the Winter Olympics to the rugged northwestern mountains. Just when you think Mohammed bin Salman’s annexation of sport might be approaching a saturation point, you are surprised afresh.
“Around 70 per cent of the Saudi population is 35 and under, and these people have grown up on global luxury brands, changing lifestyles,” Prof Chadwick says. “In very simple terms, sport gives them something to do, to spend their money on. This might seem a straightforward economic transaction, but it is embedded within politics. Clearly, MBS doesn’t want to antagonise a young population, who might take to social media to spark another Arab Spring. So, sport becomes a policy instrument, one means of promoting greater equality between men and women.”
On Saturday, Somali-born Ramla Ali will feature on the Usyk-Joshua undercard, becoming the first female boxer to compete in Saudi Arabia. It represents progress, even if the wider picture can still look uncomfortably bleak. Just this week, Salma al-Shebab, a Saudi student at Leeds University and a mother-of-two, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for alleged dissident activity on Twitter.
Still, the Saudis are undaunted in their efforts to use sport as a vehicle for influence and prestige. Participation is also a vital aim, with the kingdom battling one of the highest rates of teenage obesity and diabetes in the world. The more vexed question is how it can ever hope to recoup its investment, with an estimated £3 billion lavished on LIV Golf alone. It is the nature of autocracy that this has yet to be answered convincingly.
But Hearn, preparing for another vast Matchroom Sport payday, is adamant that the path is clear – and irrevocable. “In my world of boxing, I’m not seeing people spending hundreds of millions with no strategy,” he says. “The immediate strategy is, ‘How can we bring major events here?’ I tend not to overthink it. Fighters can earn X to fight at Wembley or in Las Vegas, or four times that to fight in Saudi Arabia. They have seen people carried out of the ring, dying in front of their families, and now they have the chance to make this kind of money. So, really, it doesn’t matter what I think. They’re going.”