Can Alalshikh Make Riyadh the Boxing Capital? Saudi Arabia's Ambitious Vision

His Excellency Turki Alalshikh, a special adviser to the Saudi royal family, emphasized that he does not have the magic to make Saudi Arabia the world center of boxing, but he has something else

by Sededin Dedovic
Can Alalshikh Make Riyadh the Boxing Capital? Saudi Arabia's Ambitious Vision
© Richard Pelham / Getty Images

Boxing, a sport with a rich history and legendary champions, has entered a new era, and at the forefront of change is an unexpected player - Saudi Arabia. The former outskirts of boxing, a land of black gold fields and majestic deserts, has become the center of spectacular fights and ambitious plans, attracting the eyes and attention of boxing fans around the world.

Just a few years ago, Las Vegas and London reigned supreme in boxing, their arenas home to legendary matches and undefeated champions. However, in 2018, Saudi Arabia began to make its mark on the global boxing scene. The first step was to organize a rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr.

in Jeddah, a shocking match in which Joshua lost the title. The move caused mixed reactions, but it undoubtedly showed the Saudi desire to join the top of boxing. At that time, something that seemed to us to be just one event in Saudi Arabia turned out to be part of a wider strategy of developing the kingdom's sporting reputation in the world.

The proof of that is the enormous funds invested in the organization of the biggest sporting events, and perhaps boxing to the greatest extent. Saudi Arabia does not hide its strategy behind entering the box. It is part of the ambitious "Vision 2030" plan, which aims to diversify the economy, reduce dependence on oil and promote Saudi Arabia as a modern and globally relevant player.

Sport, especially boxing, is becoming a key instrument of "soft power", a tool for improving the country's image and promoting a more positive global perception.

Francis Ngannou poses for a photo during the Grand Arrivals at Boulevard World, Greek World on March 04, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi A© Richard Pelham / Getty images

Alalshikh: The King of Boxing in the Making? At the head of the Saudi boxing project is an energetic figure - His Excellency Turki Alalshikh.

An adviser to the royal family and a "go-to guy" for sporting events, Alalshikh is an avid boxing fan and has ambitious plans. He does not hide his desire for Saudi Arabia to become the "capital of boxing" and to rearrange the order of forces in the sport.

He devoted most of his time to this goal and he and his team formed a vision to make this happen and establish Riyadh as the capital of Boxing. Alalshikh previously worked in positions in the Saudi government for years, including the Ministry of Defense, the Office of the Minister of Defense, the Office of the Crown Prince, and in 2017 he was promoted to the role of royal adviser.

In December 2018, he was appointed head of GEA, and ten months later he started the "Riyadh Season" project. He paid the most attention to boxing, arguing that he was a passionate fan of boxing and a fan of icons such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran from an early age.

Turki Alalshikh and Cristiano Ronaldo, soccer player of Al Nassr, looks on during the Day of Reckoning: Fight Night at Kingdom A© Richard Pelham / Getty Images

The Saudis have lined up a series of big matches in a short amount of time, including a Joshua-Usyk rematch, spectacular "Day of Reckoning" fights, and a historic unification of all heavyweight titles between Fury and Usyk that has been postponed several times.

This resulted in more frequent meetings of the best boxers, something that traditional structures could not always ensure but did not even try to succeed in. Of course, Alalshikh is very rich himself, and he also has a state fund that he received for his vision.

The Saudis, of course, spared no expense in acquiring top boxers and organizing spectacular events. High-profile fights and attractive paychecks are attracting the biggest names in the sport, upending traditional boxing power flows.

The Saudi entry into boxing raises questions about the future of the traditional boxing federations (WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO). Fighting under Saudi auspices is often not under their supervision, which can potentially lead to a weakening of their role and influence.

However, the Saudi involvement in boxing was not without controversy. Critics point to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and express concern about "sportswashing," the country's attempt to use sports to cover up a negative image.

Considering the socio-political system there, cultural differences and views on human rights, the mention of Saudi Arabia does not evoke particularly positive connotations in the West, and "soft power", in this particular case sport, serve the Kingdom as a kind of tool for changing critical perception.

Saudi Arabia has undeniably become a major force in boxing. Their ambitious plans and financial power will likely continue to shape the future of boxing as a sport. However, many questions remain open. How will traditional boxing structures adapt to these changes? The main organizations continue to have a strong influence on sports, and recently more and more voices are being raised against the organization of matches in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia