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Saudi crown prince uses Ruiz v Joshua rematch launch to plug ambitious economic vision

Andy Ruiz [L] will defend his heavyweight belts against Anthony Joshua [R] in December [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 September, 2019

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Heavyweight boxers Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua kicked off the promotional tour for their upcoming rematch with a news conference plugging Saudi Arabia's new economic vision.

Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua began the promotional tour for their world heavyweight title rematch in Saudi Arabia with a news conference in Diriyah that turned out in part to be a PR exercise for the kingdom.

Before the fighters spoke, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, used the news conference to promote the kingdom's Vision 2030 - an ambitious blueprint advanced by the royal to wean the kingdom off its reliance on oil.

The move appears to confirm concerns by rights groups and activists that the powerful young prince will use one of sport's biggest events to help cleanse his country's image.

The first heavyweight title fight held in the Middle East will take place despite an outcry over the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement by the crown prince but its own investigation acknowledged the operation was planned by two of the prince's top aides.

Joshua, who lost his IBF, WBA and WBO belts in a surprising loss to Ruiz Jr. in New York in June, said it was a "blessing to be in Saudi Arabia" and that he never thought he would fight outside his native Britain or the United States.

The heavyweight said he was "glad the people here are supporting boxing."

Ruiz Jr. spoke of his determination to retain his titles because he didn't "want to have 15 mins of fame. I want it to last."

The two boxers smiled at each other as they faced off for cameras.

Further news conferences are planned in New York on Thursday and London on Friday.

Saudi Arabia’s latest line of international sports and entertainments events has been dogged by controversy following the Khashoggi murder, which prompted business leaders and heads of state and business to boycott a major investment conference in Riyadh last year.

In October last year, former British-Yemeni superstar boxer, Prince Naseem Hamed took an unexpected political stance during Saudi Arabia's first professional boxing event, where he highlighted the war in neighbouring Yemen to a packed out stadium in Jeddah.

The British-born boxer, who is of Yemeni origin, then went on to chant a popular Arabic nationalistic slogan while on the ring, stating "With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for you O' Yemen".

"Yemen is going through some hard times, please do not forget to pray for Yemen," he added, speaking in Arabic.

The following month, Saudi Arabia hosted the World Wrestling Entertainment's [WWE] controversial 'Crown Jewel' event, prompting some fans to accuse the sports entertainment firm of accepting "Saudi blood money".
Mohammed bin Salman's reforms are seen by some as an attempt to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and high youth unemployment.

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