Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the Dakar Rally this month is just the latest international sporting event to take place in the kingdom as part of a multi-billion-dollar push to boost its battered global image.
In recent months the ultra-conservative kingdom has accelerated investment in sports, mirroring a longstanding strategy adopted by regional powers, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia is seeking to use glitzy sporting extravaganzas as an instrument of soft power in its push for regional supremacy as well as to project a moderate image of a country long seen as an exporter of jihadist ideology.
In 2019 the kingdom hosted a heavyweight boxing rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz, a Formula E motor race and a tennis exhibition tournament.
Women’s wrestling, somewhat toned down from its usual razzmatazz, also made its debut in a nation where such events were once unthinkable.
In December, Cristiano Ronaldo and his Juventus teammates took to the pitch at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh for the Italian Super Cup.
And in January, a Barcelona side featuring Lionel Messi will appear in the Spanish Super Cup, two months after the Argentine superstar played his first match on Saudi soil in a friendly encounter against Brazil.
But one of the biggest events is the coveted Dakar Rally, one of motor racing’s most gruelling adventure rallies which starts in the kingdom on Sunday and lasts until January 17.
After more than a decade in South America, the rally is set to remain in the Arabian peninsula for at least five years.