Khashoggi disappearance puts Saudi Arabia's vision of hosting major sports events under the microscope

Key Points
  • Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic both “looking forward” to playing December exhibition match in Jeddah.
  • European Tour golf and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) both “monitoring the situation” in Saudi Arabia ahead of scheduled events.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus due to play Italian Suppacoppa in Saudi Arabia in January 2019.
Rafael Nadal
Clive Brunskill | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia finds itself in the midst of heightened diplomatic tensions with the West over the disappearance of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The effects of which look likely to have wider ramifications for various high-profile sporting events scheduled to take place in the country over the coming months.

Sport is just one of the ways Saudi Arabia is attempting to show a move away from its conservative image, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bankrolling several long-term partnerships and attracting some of the world's biggest teams and stars.

Tuesday saw South American rivals Brazil and Argentina meet in Jeddah to play an international soccer friendly a long way from South America.

The world's most expensive soccer player Neymar, Liverpool FC's Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho of Barcelona all featured in the game for Brazil. However, Lionel Messi continued his mini-sabbatical from the Argentina side, as he has time off from international football since the World Cup, with Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero also missing.

The result of the match was a 1-0 win for Brazil and was largely uneventful, but images of Neymar being presented with a trophy after the match serve as invaluable positive PR for Saudi Arabia.

More opportunities have also been built into the Saudi sporting calendar, including the top two ranked tennis players in the world Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic facing off at Jeddah's King Abdullah Sports City in an exhibition match on December 22. The largely ceremonial event is being billed as the "King Salman Tennis Championship" and is just three weeks before 2019's first Grand Slam is due to start at the Australian Open.

"Thanks for the invitation and looking forward to playing and visiting for the first time!" World number one Nadal said on Twitter last week.

However, both he and Djokovic have faced an amount of backlash from tennis fans across social media, asking them to reconsider playing in Saudi Arabia.

The world of wrestling and sports entertainment has also been drawn into the debate as well, with the WWE still pressing ahead with its "Crown Jewel" pay-per-view in Riyadh on November 2. It's set to be the second time the organization has held a show in Saudi Arabia this year, as part of a multi-million dollar 10-year partnership. Although recent events involving Khashoggi has led WWE officials to reiterate to CNBC that it is "currently monitoring the situation."

Sports world could get dragged into Saudi Arabia tensions

Meanwhile, golf has featured in the Middle East on the European tour for a number of years. Saudi Arabia is to host an official event for the first time at the end of January next year.

A deal was agreed with the Arab state earlier this year and aims to get more Saudis into the sport, but the European Tour is monitoring the diplomatic situation as well.

A spokesperson for tour told CNBC: "The European Tour constantly monitors the situation in all our host countries and we will continue to do so."

This year has also seen the climax to boxing's World Super Series take place in Jeddah, when Briton's Callum Smith and George Groves met for the Super Middleweight title and December will also bring motor racing to the streets of Riyadh for the opening race of the new Formula E season.

Riyadh is also booked as the venue for the 2019 Italian Supercoppa, which is due to take place in January. Cristiano Ronaldo and his Juventus side will be up against AC Milan. The match, which sees the league champions play against the domestic cup winners, has been played outside of Italy before in China, Libya and Qatar, but it's the first time it will travel to Saudi Arabia.

Turkish investigators allege that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate in an operation planned by Saudi leadership and have opened a criminal investigation into the case. The Saudi government has denied the claims and has also launched an investigation.

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