JEFF POWELL: Lure of lucre brings the moguls to Saudi Arabia

JEFF POWELL: Tyson Fury is the front man as the lure of lucre brings the moguls to Saudi Arabia… the ancient Kingdom is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century

  • Tyson Fury is set to take on Francis Ngannou in a crossover bout on Saturday
  • The fight is taking place in Saudi Arabia where times are rapidly changing
  • LISTEN: Exclusive Tyson Fury interview on THE HOOK – our new boxing podcast 

Tyson Fury walked the carpet yesterday at an imitation of the Grand Arrivals which always kick off big fight weeks in Las Vegas.

The rug trodden by the Gypsy King and his cage-wrestler opponent in tomorrow’s crossover boxing match, Francis Ngannou, was Middle East purple rather western red.

That was one of few glimpses of Arabia in the ceremony at Boulevard Hall, an arena which is the latest addition to an entertainment district in Riyadh which clearly takes its neon inspiration from New York’s Times Square.

Here, why not call it The Times They Are A-Changin’? The ancient Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And who better to help accelerate that than the most galvanising salesman in sport since Muhammad Ali?

Even though Fury is by no means the most important arrival this week, or next… Riyadh is playing host to a succession of captains of industry, global corporation heads, major bankers and construction giants.

Tyson Fury is set to take on Francis Ngannou in a crossover bout on Saturday in Saudi Arabia

Times are changing in Saudi under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The lure is lucre way beyond Fury’s £50million pay night, jaw-dropping though that may be. Contracts are being commissioned for whole new cities, railways and massive sports-cum-entertaining complexes, for the creation of a new Saudi airline and the manufacture of super-jetliners to fly its routes. 

Oh, and the tallest building on earth while they’re at it.

The wars in Israel, Ukraine or Yemen, the murder of a dissident journalist in exile, the lengthy imprisonment of social media activists including a British student, nothing will stop the most monumental development project of modern times. Perhaps in world history.

Not when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman brings untold fortunes and driving force to the negotiations. Nor, let it be acknowledged, when he legislates reforms for women’s rights and in the whole way of life here which seemed impossible five years ago. Certainly not when the long term future of this land is at stake. Not even when this requires an unveiling of centuries cloaked under the strictest observance of Islam.

The Gypsy King with his colourful rantings is the public face for Saturday’s opening of the Riyadh Season, a three-month celebrity entertainment festival across the capital.

On Monday Elon Musk and Bill Gates will be among financial giants here to talk business with he who has this much cash to play with: $1trillion for his Vision 2030 construction programme, $800bn for tourism, $700bn in Saudi Arabia’s Investment Fund. And that’s just for starters.

Then there’s the star athletes. That investment has been labelled sports-washing. True, bin Salman wants the biggest and best. He already stages a grand prix, combat sports championships, golf and tennis tournaments. Then there’s the football. Cristiano Ronaldo has paved the way for the recruitment of big-name players on mind-boggling salaries to the previously invisible Saudi League.

Bin Salman also expects to land the biggest fish of all. The 2034 World Cup. Don’t doubt he will. FIFA has always had its price. Cynical? Maybe. Bin Salman knows how to package just about everything. He has confirmed to the president of Palestine that he stands with him but he has only paused, not cancelled, his economic ties with Israel.

However, behind all this, there is a new generation of young Saudi sports fans. Take a drive around the suburbs and you will see families gathered to watch their kids play on perfect football and cricket pitches expensively risen from the sands. The cricket World Cup sooner rather than later? Don’t bet against that either.

Restaurants with names familiar to western society are everywhere: Nobu, San Carlo, PF Chang’s and all the major steak houses. There are family restaurants such as Nando’s, TGI Friday’s, Five Guys and McDonald’s.

Tourism is the real name of this phenomenal game. The Israel-Hamas war has driven oil prices higher than ever but even the deepest wells run dry in the end. Bin Salman is using this freak surge in billions to transform Saudi Arabia into a major holiday destination: a different future from one which threatens boom turning to dust.

Some of the world’s star athletes are linked to Saudi Arabia including Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo who plays for Al-Nassr in the previously invisible Saudi Pro League

The ancient monuments are here. The fascination of the desert. The mass religious pilgrimages too. Some westerners are drawn by the mirages. But bin Salman needs millions more tourists. 

The one hurdle is opposition of his religious elders to alcohol. Who wants a holiday without being able to enjoy a drink? Will the rich want to eat dinner without having a glass of wine or two?

Thus there are whispers that one of the largest of the proposed new cities will be built on the outskirts of Riyadh as an enclave for overseas visitors where the Qatar and Dubai principle of allowing foreigners to drink in hotel bars and Michelin star restaurants is in place. In awareness of how football lovers and fight fans like their beers, future stadiums would be built with proximity access to this city.

Meanwhile Fury — no idiot he — has researched the expendable wealth available here and gauged how far he can push that bulging envelope.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. If the Gypsy King can help charm the protectors of Islam into letting him down one of his Jagermeisters when he returns here in December to fight Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed world heavyweight championship, then the Crown Prince might finish his empire sooner than we think.

Fury v Ngannou will be televised live tomorrow night on TNT Sports Box Office.

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