Saudi Arabia is to host the world heavyweight title rematch between Anthony Joshua and champion Andy Ruiz Jr in December, a choice that immediately sparked accusations of the kingdom attempting to “sportswash” its tarnished human rights image.
The high-profile Dec. 7 duel, dubbed “Clash on the Dunes,” is to see Britain’s Joshua try to win back the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organization titles that he sensationally lost to US fighter Ruiz in New York in June.
The bout is to take place in Diriyah, which incorporates the UNESCO World Heritage site of al-Turaif, on the outskirts of Riyadh — a dramatic contrast to the iconic Madison Square Garden that hosted the first fight.
Promoters Matchroom Boxing said that the fight details would be officially revealed at a news conference in London tomorrow.
The rematch has been widely touted, but Cardiff’s Principality Stadium in Wales was tipped as the favorite to stage the event.
Saudi Arabia has faced intense diplomatic fallout over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last year.
Saudi Arabian rulers, also under fire for the war in Yemen, have utilized sport as a tool to soften their international image and to provide a showcase, they claim, for reforms inside the oil-rich state.
Friday’s announcement was quickly denounced by human rights campaigners.
“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,” Amnesty UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens said.
“Despite some long-overdue reforms on women’s rights, Saudi Arabia is currently in the grip of a sweeping human rights crackdown — with women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted,” he added.
Amnesty said that Joshua should “inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out about Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record.”
In February, Saudi Arabia hosted a first European Tour golf event that was won by former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, while the world’s most grueling motor sports race, the Dakar Rally, is to be raced in the kingdom next year.
Last month, British boxer Amir Khan won the World Boxing Council international welterweight title with a fourth-round stoppage of Australian Billy Dib in Jeddah.
Khan said he did not regret agreeing to the trip, despite Amnesty describing the Saudi Arabian human rights record as “abysmal.”
Khan was reportedly paid ￡7 million (US$8.43 million) to headline the event.
The former unified world welterweight champion is a Muslim and has embarked on pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia on a number of occasions, offering him his own perspective on the kingdom.
“When I was there last, it had all changed. I started seeing women not wearing head scarves. Women were out driving,” Khan said. “They had a huge concert where everyone was dancing and enjoying themselves. I’d never seen that side of Saudi Arabia before.”
“Maybe now they are changing to make it that new place where people can enjoy themselves and it’s fair for women. I think they’re trying to change now,” he added.
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