Riyadh, February 27: Saudi Arabia said it will hold its biggest sporting event next month, with 6,000 athletes expected to participate, the latest extravaganza in a push to soften its ultra-conservative image.
The "Saudi Games" will be held in Riyadh between March 23 and April 1 and will feature 40 sports -including swimming, athletics, archery, badminton and basketball - that will be open to men and women, officials said.
"I (am) proud to launch the biggest sporting event in the kingdom's history," said the Saudi sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki. The top prize reserved for gold medalists is one million riyals (USD 267,000), organisers said.
The announcement came a day after King Salman upgraded the government body overseeing sports to a full ministry, reflecting its growing importance in the kingdom's reform efforts.
Today I was proud to launch the biggest sporting event in the Kingdom’s history. 6000 athletes from all provinces will compete in 40 sports across 17 venues in Riyadh. National champions will be crowned. Role models will emerge. Future generations will be inspired. #Saudigames— عبدالعزيز بن تركي الفيصل (@AbdulazizTF) February 26, 2020
It comes amid growing fears over the coronavirus epidemic, while Saudi Arabia itself has far reported no cases of the disease.
Saudi Arabia, under fire over human rights abuses, has accelerated investment in glitzy sports and entertainment events in a bid to improve its reputation and boost jobs and investment in the sectors.
Prince Abdulaziz was put in charge of the new sports ministry as the kingdom hosts multi-billion dollar events - from major football leagues to women's wrestling.
Saudi Arabia is to host the world's richest horse race this week - taking over the mantle from Dubai - with USD 20 million in cash prizes on offer.
Earlier this week, Saudi sports authorities launched a women's football league, in a new leap for women who were only allowed to enter football stadiums as spectators for the first time in January 2018.
But activists also accuse Saudi rulers of "sportswashing", using such events as a tool to soften their international image after long being condemned over rights abuses including the jailing of women activists.
سعدت اليوم بإطلاق النسخة الأولى من الحدث الرياضي الأكبر في تاريخ المملكة العربية السعودية..— عبدالعزيز بن تركي الفيصل (@AbdulazizTF) February 26, 2020
6000 رياضي من جميع مناطق المملكة يتنافسون في #دورة_الألعاب_السعودية
بإذن الله ثم بدعم قيادتنا ستكون هذه الدورة بوابة اكتشاف الموهوبين ودعمهم ليكونوا أبطال المستقبل #بيننا_أبطال pic.twitter.com/JFZ4SBrzDZ
"In recent months, Saudi Arabia has worked hard at 'sportswashing' its reputation -- trying to use the glamour of sport as a public relations tool to improve its international image," Amnesty International said Wednesday (February 26).
"This drive to improve the overall situation of women in Saudi Arabia can only be welcomed when it goes hand-in-hand with the inclusion of the brave individuals who fought for decades for this change."