Opinion: Why is Anthony Joshua fighting in Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world?

Promoter Eddie Hearn stands between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua ahead of their so-called Clash On The Dunes in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Promoter Eddie Hearn stands between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua ahead of their so-called Clash On The Dunes in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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You’d have thought that someone who takes a stand against racism would be against discrimination in all its forms. After all, it’s just as bad to judge someone on their gender or sexuality as the colour of their skin, right?

Not so Anthony Joshua, the British heavyweight boxer seeking to regain his world title against Andy Ruiz Jnr in Saudi Arabia this weekend. This is the man who says his parents’ generation were “too scared” to speak out about racism, but how that has all changed now with footballers like Raheem Sterling and Troy Deeney who’ve done their homework and know how to fight back.

“Their eyes are a lot wider so when these topics come up in conversation they’re a lot more outspoken, they can counter-attack because they’ve done the research,” he said.

“These guys are getting a lot smarter. It’s not just about kicking a football anymore. It’s about being an ambassador for football and with these certain ambassadorial roles come responsibilities and it comes in all different shapes and forms.”

In other words, they’re no longer afraid to call out racism and confront it.

So what on earth is Joshua doing taking part in a glitzy megabucks sporting event in Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the worst human rights records on the planet? What about his “responsibilities” or doesn’t he feel he has any?

In recent months, Amnesty International has changed its tune on what sports stars should do when invited to compete in the desert kingdom.

While previously it said they should boycott Saudi altogether, the human rights charity now accepts they will probably go anyway but while they’re there they should speak out about abuses going on in the country.

Tell people about the activist Loujain al-Hathloul who’s been in jail for 18 months, flogged, tortured and sexually assaulted, for campaigning for women’s right to drive and an end to the male guardianship system.

Or mention the mass execution of 37 men in April, many following unfair trials. Or the stonings. Or others who were put to death because they were gay.

That’s before you even get to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi which the CIA believes was most likely ordered by the Saudi crown prince himself, Mohammed bin Salman.

So, what is Mr Joshua’s response to this call to arms, this appeal for people like him to join the ranks of Sterling and Deeney?

He does nothing, saying it’s impossible for him to “put on a cape and save the world”. He’d rather engage with Saudi Arabia, than be “accusing, pointing fingers and shouting from Great Britain”.

And take the £66 million he is getting for the fight.

Nobody’s asking you save the world, but engaging nicely with unpleasant, dictatorial regimes as a way of getting them to reform doesn’t really work, I find. It’s the same response that Richard Branson recently gave about investing in Saudi Arabia until, quite rightly, he said the regime was beyond the pale post-Khashoggi.

Amnesty’s message is for Joshua to use the accompanying publicity while he is there to speak out about Saudi abuses. He doen’t have to be a caped crusader.

The response of Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, is even more shameful. When asked about human rights considerations, he said they were “above my head”. Well, go and do some research like Sterling and Deeney did.

Questioned about Amnesty International labelling the fight ‘sportswashing’ he simply replied: “I don’t understand that term”.

A cursory check would have informed him that ‘sportswashing’ is where repressive states use the lure and excitement of glamorous events, like boxing fights, to remove stains on their reputation and pretend everything in the 
garden is rosy.

“I’m a boxing promoter and sometimes the criticism and the curiosity will lead to an event of an extraordinary magnitude,” said Hearn.

He has been hyping the fight as the ‘Clash in the Dunes’ to put it on a par with those titanic Muhammad Ali bouts, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila. The first one in 1974 – when Ali beat George Foreman – was hosted by the kletopcrat ruler of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, who spent $10m putting on the fight while many in his country were mired in dire poverty.

The Thrilla in Manila a year later – when Ali slugged it out with Joe Frazier – was fought in the Philippines, a country which had been under martial law for three years and whose ruler, Ferdinand Marcos, looted his country of billions of dollars, silenced the media and used oppression against any opposition.

The thing that Hearn doesn’t get is that we’ve moved on since the 1970s and it’s no longer cool to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of dictators and help them sportswash their bad behaviour.

We call out discrimination and oppression where we see it. To use the words which Joshua used to describe Sterling and Deeney: “We’re smarter, wiser and sharper”. The truth is that people like Joshua and Hearn will engage with regimes like Saudi Arabia when there’s money on the table.

At least Hearn is honest about it. But spare me Joshua’s pretence to be a man of principle.

If you feel the pain of a black footballer who hears monkey noises in the crowd, you cannot then ignore the cries of the women’s right activist who is given electric shock treatment and then told to deny she has been tortured on video to secure her release. Like Loujain.