RIYADH • Saudi Arabia's hosting of the world heavyweight title rematch between Anthony Joshua and champion Andy Ruiz Jr on Dec 7 has sparked accusations the Gulf kingdom is trying to "sports-wash" its tarnished human rights image.
The bout, dubbed "Clash on the Dunes", will see Britain's Joshua trying to reclaim the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organisation titles he sensationally lost to American Ruiz in New York in June.
The bout will take place in Diriyah - which incorporates the Unesco World Heritage site of Al-Turaif, on the outskirts of Riyadh - a dramatic contrast to the iconic Madison Square Garden which hosted the first fight.
The Saudis, however, have faced an intense diplomatic fallout over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year, as well as their role in the ongoing Yemen civil war. They have used the staging of high-profile sporting events as a tool to try and soften their international image and to provide a showcase for reforms inside the oil-rich state.
But Friday's announcement has been denounced by human rights campaigners, with Amnesty UK calling on Joshua to "inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out about Saudi Arabia's abysmal record".
In February this year, the Saudis hosted their maiden European Tour golf event which was won by former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, while the world's most gruelling motor sports race, the Dakar Rally, will be staged in the kingdom next year.
Last month, Amir Khan knocked out Australian Billy Dib for the World Boxing Council international welterweight title in Jeddah.
The Briton, who was reportedly paid £7 million (S$11.7 million) to headline the event, has defended the duel, insisting Saudi Arabia is "changing to make it that new place where people can enjoy themselves and it's fair for women".
Promoters Matchroom Boxing will reveal the Joshua-Ruiz fight details at a news conference in London today.