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Saudi setting for title fight draws criticism

AFP LONDON (AFP-Jiji) — Saudi Arabia will host the world heavyweight title rematch between Anthony Joshua and champion Andy Ruiz Jr in December, a controversial choice which immediately sparked accusations of the Gulf kingdom attempting to “sportswash” its tarnished human rights image.

The high-profile Dec. 7 duel, dubbed “Clash on the Dunes,” will see Britain’s Joshua trying to win back the IBF, WBA and WBO titles he sensationally lost to American fighter 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.

Promoters Matchroom Boxing said the fight details will be officially revealed at a news conference in London on Monday.

The rematch had been widely touted, but Cardiff’s Principality Stadium was tipped as favorite to stage the event.

The Saudis have faced intense diplomatic fallout over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the conservative kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Saudi rulers, also under fire for the war in neighboring Yemen, have utilized sports as a tool to try and soften their international image and to provide a showcase, they claim, for reforms inside the oil-rich state.

But Friday’s announcement was quickly denounced by human rights campaigners.

“If Anthony Joshua fights Andy Ruiz Jr. in Saudi Arabia, it’s likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to ‘sportswash’ their severely tarnished image,” said Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns Felix Jakens.

In February this year, the Saudis hosted a first European Tour golf event, which was won by former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, while the world’s most grueling motor sports race, the Dakar Rally, will be raced in the country in 2020.

In July, British boxer Amir Khan won the WBC international welterweight title with a fourth-round stoppage of Australian Billy Dib in Jeddah.

Khan said he did not regret agreeing to the trip, for which he was was reportedly paid £7 million.

The former unified world welterweight champion is a Muslim and has embarked on pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia on a number of occasions.

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