Despite the surprise surrounding the selection of Saudi Arabia to host the Asian Winter Games in 2029, the decision makes sense on two levels.
Hosts for major events are becoming as scarce as snowstorms in the Arabian desert. The appeal of major sports tournaments as national showcases is appealing to anyone ready to take on the responsibility.
It’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic contrast than the Japanese powder of Sapporo, host of the 1972 Winter Olympics as well as the first Asian Winter Games in 1986 and the most recent in 2017 and the rugged desert of Trojena, 50 kilometers from the Red Sea shore.
Johan Clarey, who won silver in the downhill at the Olympics, told French radio that it was terrible for his sport.
The decision of the Olympic Council of Asia “surprised” International Ski and Snowboard Federation Secretary General Michel Vion (OCA).
It is not the first time this has happened in the Gulf.
In 2021, Dubai staged qualifying slaloms for the Beijing Winter Olympics in the refrigerated dome of a massive shopping mall, with temperatures outside reaching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
However, in a period of global warming, the Saudi project poses a slew of concerns, ranging from the projected temperatures to the energy impact, as well as the diversion of local water supplies and the development of entirely artificial ski slopes.
Saudi Arabia has made a significant investment in sports, hosting Formula One, the Dakar Rally, a cycle tour, boxing title fights, and the Spanish Supercup, as well as considering a bid to co-host the 2030 World Cup.
Saudi billionaires have purchased Newcastle United in England and are funding the splinter LIV golf tour.
The competition with Qatari and Emirati neighbors, regional pioneers in sports diplomacy, is never far from the surface.
However, the Asian Games’ goal is “above all economic,” according to Raphael Le Magoariec, a specialist in the geopolitics of Gulf countries sport at the University of Tours.
Riyadh “primarily wants to advertise its future city, NEOM,” he argues.
NEOM is a projected $500 billion futuristic megacity. The Games would be place at the Trojena resort area.
“There are significant unknowns about the snow, as well as the overall project’s execution,” warned Le Magoariec.
“At this point,” Le Magoariec remarked, “the Saudis have already benefited from the impact of the news.”
He also stated that Saudi Arabia “is not aiming to talk to a European public,” but rather to the wealthy in the Middle East, Russia, India, and China, employing a “neoliberal logic” that is “devoid of concern for the environment or human rights.”
Greenpeace regional campaigns manager Ahmed El Droubi told AFP that “the development is attempting to sell to individuals who already have homes.”
“Desalination of such a large volume of water would require tremendous quantities of energy,” he explained.
“It will need to be fed with water on a regular basis, which will need vast quantities of energy over time.”
That appears to make the OCA decision surprising, coming at a time when sports organizations are increasingly highlighting the social and environmental impact of their events, which are being scrutinized by researchers and NGOs.
However, the paucity of additional applicants left them with little options.
“The OCA cannot be too particular. They determined that going to Saudi Arabia was preferable to going nowhere “, according to Pim Verschuuren, a geopolitics of sport expert at the University of Rennes II.
Following their successful hosting of the previous summer and winter Olympics, respectively, Japan and China have withdrawn from the Asian Winter Games after hosting six of the first eight events.
According to Verschuuren, the OCA “needs” host countries “to exist politically and economically.”
The scarcity of prospective hosts is not limited to Asia.
The size and cost of major events, as well as public antagonism in many nations, dissuade potential hosts.
The difficulty is especially acute for winter tournaments, which have already limited regional options.
“The question is, which organization will be the first to lower the size and impact of their event in order to meet sustainability criteria?” said Verschuuren.
However, he describes sports organizations as “big liners that take time to change direction.”