Axel May with AFP
7:33 p.m., October 04, 2022modified to
7:48 p.m., October 04, 2022
Saudi Arabia will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in Neom, a futuristic megacity being built in the mountainous desert northwest of the oil-rich Gulf state, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced on Tuesday. “The deserts and mountains of Saudi Arabia will soon be a playground for winter sports,” said the OCA in a statement, adding that the decision had been taken “unanimously” during of its general assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Located on the shores of the Red Sea, the Neom project, estimated at several hundred billion dollars and led by the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was launched in 2017. Architects and economists have questioned its feasibility.
The Asian Winter Games are set to take place in Trojena, a mountainous area of Neom “where temperatures drop below zero degrees in winter and temperatures throughout the year are generally below 10 degrees”, promoters say on their website, without mentioning the issue of very low rainfall.
“Redefining mountain tourism”
Located 50 kilometers from the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, with altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 2,600 m in an area of almost 60 km2, Trojena, which is due to be completed in 2026, will include ski slopes open all year round. , an artificial freshwater lake, chalets, mansions and luxury hotels, according to the same source.
Having become Prime Minister at the end of September, and occupying several leading economic functions, Prince Mohammed himself chairs the Board of Directors of Neom. The one who is nicknamed “MBS” promised with this project to “redefine mountain tourism in the world”, while promising respect for the environment, in this oil monarchy which is among the world’s leading exporters of crude oil.
For the time being, Saudi Arabia is not among the 86 countries “where skiing is possible outdoors”, according to the 2021 report on mountain tourism by Swiss expert Laurent Vanat, unlike for example Iran, Iraq or Lebanon. Neom director Nadhmi al-Nasr, for his part, said that Trojena would be equipped with “adequate infrastructure to create a winter atmosphere in the heart of the desert, and to make these Winter Games an unprecedented global event”.
Several sports competitions already hosted by Riyadh
The Asian Winter Games include competitions in skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey and figure skating, comprising 47 events, including 28 on snow and 19 on ice, according to the OCA. “I would never have imagined being able to ski (one day) in my country,” Saudi alpine skier Fayik Abdi reacted on Tuesday. The only representative of his country at the last Winter Olympics in Beijing (44th in the giant slalom), he told AFP that he had trained on the Lebanese slopes.
Following its neighbors in the Gulf, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the lead, Saudi Arabia, an ultra-conservative country that was once not very open to international events, has hosted several world competitions in recent years, including the Dakar rally or an F1 Grand Prix.
The rise of its sports diplomacy coincides with the scarcity of candidate countries to host major events – costly and of uncertain benefit for the populations: launched in 1986 in Japan, which hosted them four times, the Asian Games of he winter experienced six years of eclipse between 2011 (Almaty, Kazakhstan) and 2017 (Sapporo, Japan), then disappeared from the calendar for lack of potential hosts, explains the specialized site Inside The Games.
Human rights violations
While the kingdom seeks to diversify its economy and improve its image, NGOs regularly accuse Saudi Arabia of serious human rights violations, with relentless repression of political dissidents, including women’s rights activists. In an interview with AFP, the Saudi Minister of Sports, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, recently mentioned his country’s desire to one day organize the Olympic Games.
An Egyptian official told him last month that Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia had started discussions on a possible joint bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2030.