The only surprise is it took so long for the America’s Cup to align itself with Saudi Arabia.
Given how gratefully football and golf have received investment from the Kingdom – human rights concerns be damned – staging a preliminary regatta in Jeddah this year makes perfect business sense.
No one regards the America’s Cup as a bastion of equality, a force for social good. Aside from its popularity among the Kiwi public, it’s always been about money, and organisers can stage racing wherever they want.
But Grant Dalton’s reasoning for taking the sport to Saudi Arabia doesn’t wash.
“There’s always political fallout but, I would suggest, from a lot of people that frankly haven’t been there,” the Team NZ boss told Newstalk ZB. “I have been there and I’ve seen what is happening, and I think it’s a great place.”
Full disclosure: Unlike Dalton, I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia and enjoyed a carefully curated trip designed to showcase the best of a country whose unlimited resources come in handy when treating an influential tourist to a good time.
Chances are, Dalton didn’t attend a public execution during his visit, despite ample opportunity. Saudi Arabia has executed at least 100 people this year, some for drug-related offences or, much more damaging to the world, posting tweets.
And in case you were wondering whether the tweets were particularly egregious, Amnesty International said many death sentences followed “grossly unfair trials that fell far short of international human rights standards”.
It’s also unlikely Dalton visited the nation’s border with Yemen where, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Saudi guards killed hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers between March 2022 and June 2023.
Refugee and migrant researcher Nadia Hardman said: “Spending billions buying up professional golf, football clubs and major entertainment events to improve the Saudi image should not deflect attention from these horrendous crimes”.
Yes, perhaps, but Dalton was ready to counter critics of sport’s eager embrace of Saudi cash.
“There’s a couple of important facts that people purposely try not to realise,” he said. “Sixty per cent of their population is under 34 years of age, so they have to find pathways for that population into sport. That’s just one fact alone.”
That was the only fact offered by Dalton that people apparently ignore. And it is true, according to 2022 census data putting the median age of Saudi Arabia’s population at 29.
But it’s disingenuous to float this regatta as a pathway to increasing Saudis’ participation in sport, given the barriers of entry inherent to sailing.
There’s an argument that paying Cristiano Ronaldo US$200 million ($337m) a year to play football in the country will encourage more young men to take up the national sport. I personally would argue using that money to invest in grassroots football would be more beneficial.
But sailing? Will this regatta really spark a surge of engagement among young Saudis? Or is it aimed at attracting foreigners awash with cash, tourists who, like Dalton, will receive the warmest of welcomes?
One Australian yachtie who checked into Jeddah Yacht Club this year paid an “outstandingly high” price of $3500 for entry and exit to the marina. “The Saudis want mega-yachters with money,” veteran sailor Wayne Sillick told the Middle Eastern Eye. “They aren’t geared to servicing middle-class yachties.”
That does sound fitting for the America’s Cup, an event long aligned with the private-jet class. Dalton will no doubt relish his next visit to Saudi Arabia, as will all involved in the preliminary regatta. But there’s no need to pretend motivations are altruistic above financial.
Kris Shannon has been a sports journalist since 2011 and covers a variety of codes for the Herald. Reporting on Grant Elliott’s six at Eden Park in 2015 was a career highlight.