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Despite Human Rights Issues, Saudi Arabia’s Sports Profile Shows No Signs of Slowing

  • 22-time major winner Rafael Nadal signs on as a tennis ambassador for the country.
  • UFC is reportedly shifting a planned March 2 event in Riyadh to June.
Nadal
Syndication: The Enquirer

Saudi Arabia’s fast-growing power as a sports market is now even more evident, as the country has formed a relationship with one of tennis’s all-time greats and could get an improved UFC event later this year.

Rafael Nadal, a 22-time major tournament winner, has signed on as an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation. Nadal will promote tennis in the country and plans to build an academy there. The move arrives as Saudi Arabia continues to face widespread scrutiny for its widely rebuked human rights record and accusations of sportswashing.

“Everywhere you look in Saudi Arabia, you can see growth and progress, and I’m excited to be part of that,” Nadal said. “I want to help the sport grow far and wide across the world, and in Saudi [sic] there is real potential.”

Through 2027, Saudi Arabia will host the ATP’s Next Gen Finals for under-21 players, an advancement beyond prior exhibitions held in the Gulf state. The WTA also is rumored to be considering moving its season-ending Finals to the country, but such a deal could raise further issues given the limitations on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s hard. Everything that’s going on in the sport is not black-and-white,” said women’s World No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Prior to the start of the Australian Open, Nadal withdrew with a hip injury, a setback after missing nearly a year of competition due to related maladies. 

UFC Shift

Staying in the region: UFC is reportedly shifting a previously announced March 2 event in Riyadh, its first-ever card in Saudi Arabia, perhaps to June. Neither UFC nor Saudi officials have commented, and the date move is unconfirmed. But MMA journalist Ariel Helwani reported the change is due in part to Saudi demands, saying on his podcast, The MMA Hour: “I was told the reason for the postponement is that the powers that be in Saudi Arabia want … a more entertaining fight card, a deeper fight card with bigger names on it.”

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