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Heavyweight title fight draws accusations of Saudi 'sportswashing'

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Mexican-American heavyweight boxing champion Andy Ruiz Jr and British heavyweight boxing challenger Anthony Joshua pose during the official weigh-in in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Friday.   -  
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GIUSEPPE CACACE
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Anthony Joshua's status as boxing's rising star might not be the only reputation on the line in Saudi Arabia this weekend.

British fighter Joshua is seeking to reclaim three heavyweight titles from Mexican-American champion Andy Ruiz Jr., who stunned the sporting world with his seventh round victory at Madison Square Garden in June.

But Saturday's much-anticipated world heavyweight title fight is facing criticism from human rights groups who have accused the host country of attempting to hide its record behind the prestige of the sporting glamour event.

The fight is the first of its kind to take place in the Middle East, but rights groups have called the event an attempt to "sportswash" the country's image on the world stage.

Mexican-American heavyweight boxing champion Andy Ruiz Jr and British heavyweight boxing challenger Anthony Joshua pose during the official weigh-in in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Friday.
Mexican-American heavyweight boxing champion Andy Ruiz Jr and British heavyweight boxing challenger Anthony Joshua pose during the official weigh-in in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Friday.GIUSEPPE CACACE

Amnesty International encouraged athletes to use the hype around the event to shed light on the abuses.

But Joshua did not appear to heed the call, saying he was "comfortable" with fighting in the kingdom.

"All I'm here to do is box," Joshua told The Associated Press ahead of the fight, which will reportedly see him pocket $70 million.

"It's a massive opportunity," he said. "Boxers need opportunities. Every sport and every business needs global opportunity. It ticks a box for business, but also tourists and sports."

NBC News has reached out to Saudi Arabia for comment.

The regime has leaned heavily on sports and entertainment as it seeks to improve its image in the wake of widespread revulsion and condemnation following the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

"We have a plan to change the social scene within the kingdom towards what is right, and sport is one of the fields within the 2030 vision that is achieving that goal," Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, chairman of the General Sports Authority, told the BBC ahead of the fight.

"We're using sport to invite anyone who wants to see what it really is like here and to showcase the country."

The fight is set to get underway at around 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
The fight is set to get underway at around 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday.ANDREW COULDRIDGE

Saturday's fight headlined a month-long set of events called "Diriyah Season" that started Nov. 22 with a Formula E race and will continue with an eight-man tennis tournament.

International recording artists have performed throughout the month.

The reclusive kingdom also introduced a new tourist visa schemein September to attract foreign visitors.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a series of reforms since assuming power in June 2017, allowing women to driveand attend public performances including sporting eventsin an effort to reshape how the world views the kingdom.

President Donald Trump's administration has strengthenedits alliance with the powerful young royal, who has presented himself as a reformer eager totransform the deeply conservative society.

But the progressive changes have masked a broader crackdown, according to rights groups.

The crown prince said earlier this year that while he takes full responsibility for Khashoggi's murder as the country's leader, he did not order his killing. The CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies have concluded otherwise.

"Despite the hype over supposed reforms, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a sweeping human rights crackdown, with women's rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted," said Felix Jakens, head of campaigns for Amnesty International U.K.

World

Human Rights Watch said that while the country's "newfound enthusiasm" for sports will force it to increasingly adhere to international human rights standards, abuses remain.

"Instead of using sports to rehabilitate its global image, it would be cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world," said Minky Worden, the group's director of global initiatives.

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