Tommy Martin: Skiing in the desert? Nothing about sport is ridiculous any more

Still, even by the standards of the contemporary news cycle, staging an event typically predicated on the weather being quite chilly in one of the world’s most notably toasty nations should raise an eyebrow.
Tommy Martin: Skiing in the desert? Nothing about sport is ridiculous any more

A solitary climber ascends a sand dune in the Bajdah desert, NEOM. Will this soon be a ski slope? Pic: neom.com

What could sum up modern life’s permanent state of discombobulation better than the news that the 2029 Asian Winter Games will be held in Saudi Arabia?

Skiing in the desert? Why not? The acceptance that things that should not happen can happen is the only way to cope these days, whether processing the slow collapse of the global financial order or simply watching Erling Haaland play football.

Still, even by the standards of the contemporary news cycle, staging an event typically predicated on the weather being quite chilly in one of the world’s most notably toasty nations should raise an eyebrow.

Winter sports conjure certain images. Playboy high jinks atop soaring Alpine peaks. Sequin-clad Eastern European teens spinning triple Salchows to piped-in Tchaikovsky. Snowboard bros pulling stunts in the Colorado stoner belt. A stern Scottish matriarch staring at a curling stone as its slips its way down the rink.

Anything involving camels? No?

Times have changed when it comes to preposterous bids for sporting events. Can it be just a few decades since plans were hatched to bring the Summer Olympics to Dublin, a city then without a 50-metre swimming pool and still without a metro? That idea was laughed out of town to the extent that the politician behind it, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, became synonymous with a specific type of flaky Celtic Tiger era hubris.

The big difference these days is that grandiose visions can happen, if you have the fossil fuel wealth of an ambitious Arab tyrant to fund them. Indeed, when you hear some of the things that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman has planned for NEOM, the $500 billion city of the future which the 2029 Asian Winter Games will be held up the road from, then Bedouin bobsleigh seems perfectly sane.

The Crown Prince dreamed up the idea of NEOM shortly after he had elbowed sundry cousins and uncles out of the way to become de facto ruler following the accession to the throne of his elderly father, King Salman, in 2015. Prior to MBS, the Saudi economy had been a straightforward enterprise: sell oil to the world and dish the money out to a vast cohort of royal spongers who lived lives of globe-trotting debauchery far from the desert kingdom’s moral strictures.

Even before he came to power, MBS saw himself as a moderniser, cutting a swathe through the boardrooms of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, investing billions in the hope of projecting Saudi Arabia as a thrusting modern economy that would thrive even when the oil eventually runs out.

But he became dismayed that the West simply viewed Saudi Arabia as a big, dumb money tap and showed no interest in reciprocating by investing in the kingdom themselves. Much as they loved the endless flow of cash, outsiders remained iffy about hard-line Islamic clerics going around beheading people. So, MBS dreamed up NEOM, from the Greek word for ‘new’ and the Arab word for ‘future’, to be located in a stretch of arid landscape near the Jordanian border populated only by some unfortunate nomadic tribes.

NEOM would be far from the stodgy bureaucracy and rabid Wahhabi clerics of the main cities, meaning MBS could do what he liked. It would be a cutting-edge, technological paradise, a thriving hub of business and innovation. At its heart would be a 100-mile-long city called “The Line”, a narrow strip of futuristic development encased by two long, glass skyscrapers.

It would have beaches that glowed in the dark, flying cars and robotic servants to allow humans get on with scuba-diving in the Red Sea or rock-climbing in the Sarawat mountains. He wanted an artificial full moon to rise in the night sky and desalination plants to get over the fact that the region had no actual fresh water. Western investment bankers and consultants lined up to tell him how wonderful all this sounded.

Of course, this whole, ridiculous realm is nothing new to readers of this parish, who have watched Saudi Arabia bring the entire sports world to heel in recent years. It started with Formula One, horse racing and boxing title fights, escalated to an obscene, seismically disruptive golf tour and the purchase of a 130-year-old English football club and now includes a probable bid to stage the 2030 World Cup. Hence why this week’s news that the cream of Asia’s lugers will be slip-sliding their way to the sandy wastes of Arabia is not as jarring as it once might have been.

Nor is it considered much of a problem that all this was happening parallel to Saudi Arabia’s brutal suppression of dissent, ongoing abuse of human rights and resulting accusations of sportswashing. Mohamed Bin Salman is a man of grand, modernising vision who brooks no internal opposition.

The sense of this story being driven by one man’s ginormous ego and the grovelling genuflection of greedy fellow-travellers gives it a certain doomed quality. Five years on from its inception and three years before its planned completion, there has been little construction progress on NEOM. The Sarawat mountains which will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games typically receive only a light dusting of snow, necessitating man-made production beyond anything experts currently believe possible. Regional analysts have begun to speculate whether the recklessness of the project could actually bankrupt Saudi Arabia.

The left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last month on stirrings of discontent within the Saudi royal circle. “The general concern is this will turn out like for the Shah of Iran, developing schemes that become incredibly detached from reality and no one will tell him to refocus,” an anonymous source told the newspaper. “The last Shah of Iran, a tyrannical ruler with autocratic behaviours and Western-style leanings who pushed modernising reforms, was overthrown in 1979 during Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” the report mentions.

How the fortunes of the Saudi speedskating team might be affected is unclear.

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