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Ruiz-Joshua title fight raises fears of Saudi Arabia 'sportswashing' human rights record

Ahead of Saturday's world heavyweight boxing bout, human rights groups accused Riyadh of using sports to rehabilitate its image on the world stage.
Image: Andy Ruiz Jr v Anthony Joshua 2 - Final Press Conference
Prince Khalid Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud addresses the media during a press conference Wednesday in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

Anthony Joshua's status as boxing's rising star might not have been the only reputation on the line in Saudi Arabia this weekend.

British fighter Joshua on Saturday reclaimed his three heavyweight titles in a unanimous points decision. He had lost them to Mexican-American underdog Andy Ruiz Jr., who stunned the sporting world with a seventh round victory at Madison Square Garden in June.

But Saturday's much-anticipated rematch faced criticism for what was happening outside the ring.

The world title fight was the first of its kind to take place in the Middle East, but human rights groups called the event an attempt to "sportswash" the kingdom's image on the world stage.

Amnesty International accused the host country of attempting to hide its record behind the prestige of the sporting glamour event and encouraged athletes to use the hype around the fight to shed light on the abuses.

But Joshua did not appear to heed the call, saying he was "comfortable" with fighting in Saudi Arabia.

“All I’m here to do is box,” Joshua told The Associated Press ahead of his victory, which will reportedly see him pocket $70 million.

"It’s a massive opportunity," he said. "Boxers need opportunities. Every sport and every business needs global opportunity. It ticks a box for business, but also tourists and sports."

Image: Andy Ruiz Jr v Anthony Joshua 2 - Clash on the Dunes, IBF, WBA, WBO & IBO World Heavyweight Title Fight
Anthony Joshua celebrates victory over Andy Ruiz Jr during the 'Clash on the Dunes' show Saturday.Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

NBC News has reached out to Saudi Arabia for comment.

The regime has leaned heavily on sports and entertainment as it seeks to improve its image in the wake of widespread revulsion and condemnation following the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

“We have a plan to change the social scene within the kingdom towards what is right, and sport is one of the fields within the 2030 vision that is achieving that goal," Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, chairman of the General Sports Authority, told the BBC ahead of the fight.

"We're using sport to invite anyone who wants to see what it really is like here and to showcase the country."

Saturday's fight headlined a month-long set of events called "Diriyah Season" that started Nov. 22 with a Formula E race and will continue with an eight-man tennis tournament.

International recording artists have performed throughout the month.

The reclusive kingdom also introduced a new tourist visa scheme in September to attract foreign visitors.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a series of reforms since assuming power in June 2017, allowing women to drive and attend public performances including sporting events in an effort to reshape how the world views the kingdom.

President Donald Trump’s administration has strengthened its alliance with the powerful young royal, who has presented himself as a reformer eager to transform the deeply conservative society.

But the progressive changes have masked a broader crackdown, according to rights groups.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the heavyweight boxing match between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua for the IBF, WBA, WBO and IBO titles in Diriya, near the Saudi capital on December 7, 2019.FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP - Getty Images

The crown prince said earlier this year that while he takes full responsibility for Khashoggi's murder as the country's leader, he did not order his killing. The CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies have concluded otherwise.

"Despite the hype over supposed reforms, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a sweeping human rights crackdown, with women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted," said Felix Jakens, head of campaigns for Amnesty International U.K.

Human Rights Watch said that while the country's "newfound enthusiasm" for sports will force it to increasingly adhere to international human rights standards, abuses remain.

"Instead of using sports to rehabilitate its global image, it would be cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world," said Minky Worden, the group's director of global initiatives.