“Making history with sport is essential for an authoritarian regime,” says a specialist in the geopolitics of sport

Saudi Arabia will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in a city under construction, Neom, a €500 billion site. “Making history through sport is essential in an authoritarian regime,” Analysis Tuesday October 4th on franceinfo Jean-Baptiste Guégan, specialist in geopolitics of sport, describing an operation of communication in addition to a “Environmental and energy heresy”.

franceinfo: How important is this project for the kingdom?

Jean Baptiste Guegan : The Neom project is part of this desire to make Saudi Arabia stand out, to show a different face of the country. Be it the Asian Summer Games 2034 or the Asian Winter Games 2029, even if the latter are still a surprise. We already had the example with Beijing 2022: these games were organized without natural snow, only with artificial snow. So why not go there? Even if it is an environmental and energy heresy.

500 billion dollars for the construction of Neom, this megacity on the Red Sea: isn’t that a money pit?

If you look at it from the perspective of a multi-week demonstration, yes, it’s a money pit. The idea is to open up northern Saudi Arabia. In truth, it is a more global issue. These Asian Winter Games are just a pretext, icing on the cake. This is what Saudi Arabia will seek to facilitate funding for the Neom project. Today Saudi Arabia cannot finance it. Foreign donors are needed. The organization of such events serves to find these donors.

What can Saudi Arabia gain from such a project?

Same as Qatar and the World Cup: controversy but also real exposure for a long time. Sport is recurring, regular and appeals to everyone. The idea is to master the narrative, the story that is made of you. Sport is for that. It will allow you to tell a different story and write it yourself. This is exactly what Mohammad bin Salman is looking for. For an authoritarian regime, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

So is it primarily a genuine communication operation?

Yes, and today it is the problem of international major sporting events. They are organized primarily for reasons of soft power and international visibility. The real concern now is to hold the international federations accountable so that they don’t leave this type of sporting event to these types of regimes. Everyone is talking about the boycott in Qatar. The real problem is FIFA.

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