The past year has seen an explosion of sporting bodies in Saudi Arabia. From this time in 2017, when there were 30 sport federations, to having as many as 60 today — ones encompassing ice hockey, sailing and polo. There are also going to be more sporting arenas throughout the Kingdom, such as those to be based at the newly inaugurated area Al-Qiddiya.
Across the country there seems to be a desire to put sport, for both men and women, near the top of the agenda — increasing participation is a focus of Vision 2030. It is a cliche, but only because it is true, sport brings people together. Never has that been more apparent than in Saudi Arabia over the past 12 months. The country has got out of first gear, so to speak, and is now hosting big matches and races — from wrestling to football, from diving to sailing, and this December the inaugural Saudi Arabian Formula E race.
The WWE event, the famous Royal Rumble, saw 60,000 people, including women, attend. Straight after that extravaganza wrestling clubs were flooded with children all wanting to be the next John Cena or Undertaker. It is clear that from watching sport comes a desire to take part.
So it is no surprise to see the General Sports Authority looking to increase the number of high-profile stars coming to the Kingdom to inspire the population to get off the sofa and onto a sporting arena of some description — be it a football pitch or basketball court.
Next month sees the latest addition to the Saudi Arabia sporting calendar with tennis legends Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic competing against each other in the King Salman Tennis Championship in Jeddah. That is unless it is called off due to political pressure following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, may he rest in peace.
Following such an awful event sometimes nothing seems important. But the thing is, sport does bring people together and it would be a shame if the tennis match and other sporting events did not take place.
Across the country there seems to be a desire to put sport, for both men and women, near the top of the agenda — increasing participation is a focus of Vision 2030.
Dr. Razan Baker
Athletes such as Nadal and Djokovic are role models not just for Spain and Serbia, but for all the world, including Saudi nationals.
There are thousands, if not millions, in the Kingdom who who have never been able to see their heroes in the flesh and would love to see these two all-time greats perform. They include young talents who having seen Nadal hit one of his rasping forehands down the line will then decide they want to become a tennis pro. Events like these change lives for the better.
On top of this Saudi Arabia is now opening up to the world — the door for different cultures to meet, mix, and learn is ajar. Now is not the time to shut it, if anything now is time to ensure it remains open and allow different nationalities the opportunity to meet on the sporting field in the Kingdom.
Once again, we come back to the old cliche — that of sport bringing people together and there are no better people to help promote that understanding and cultural exchange than the sporting stars most of us only ever see on a TV.
Whether it is John Cena, Neymar, or Nadal every Saudi Arabian is thrilled to welcome you in our country. Keep coming and inspiring everyone around the globe, not least people here who see you all as source of pride and inspiration.
- Dr. Razan Baker is a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Bowling Federation, a specialist in corporate social responsibility in sports, and a sports columnist/journalist.