The fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi is pleading with Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury to turn down a potentially “shameful” deal with Saudi Arabia to host the fight of the century. Hatice Cengiz told The Telegraph that accepting a potential £100million-plus offer would present the crown prince, accused over his alleged role in her partner’s killing, with a “reward for his crimes”.
Her 11th hour intervention comes after Fury confirmed Saudi Arabia is one of the frontrunners to land the fight, with a venue potentially being agreed upon between the heavyweights by the end of the weekend.
Fury spoke late on Friday of “three or four big offers on the table”, including “interest from Saudi Arabia” as well as approaches from “my gypsy brothers in Qatar, Uzbekistan, Russia, America, England”.
The two-fight deal will unify the world heavyweight titles and present whichever venues are chosen with one the great showdowns of modern sport. Saudi Arabia, which has a relationship with promoter Eddie Hearn after Joshua fought his rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr in Riyadh in 2019, is thought to have tabled the biggest offer.
Cengiz, 40, said allowing the nation to hold one of the biggest British boxing fights was unthinkable. Negotiations take place while Cengiz and her legal team continue to pursue a lawsuit against crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), with the CIA assessing the de factor ruler “approved” the kidnap, drugging, torture, and assassination of Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.
“I cannot believe after all this time, and all the evidence showing his guilt, that the Saudi Crown Prince is still being considered as a ‘host’ for such world sporting events, which he is using for political reasons and to clean his image,” she said in a statement sent to The Telegraph.
During his campaign for the White House, Joe Biden claimed he would pursue MBS and Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, who had entered the Turkish consulate to get a visa to travel to Saudi Arabia to get married to Cengiz. A newly declassified American intelligence service states: “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Cengiz added: “Sports should not be used for politics, nor to whitewash atrocities. Jamal was brutally murdered and it would be shameful if the man who stands accused of ordering it were allowed to benefit from this famous and profitable boxing match. I urge the organisers not to give him this reward for his crimes. We should instead stand together for justice and humanity.”
Her lawyer, Rodney Dixon QC, of Temple Garden Chambers, added: “In pursuing all legal avenues to obtain the truth and justice for Jamal’s murder, we are asking the organisers of this prestigious event to stand on the side of the rule of law, and not to allow it to be hosted by the accused.”
An upfront offer from Saudi Arabia became the immediate front-runner last month, with analysts predicting a deal at least double the £70m fee it paid for Joshua-Ruiz Jnr. Both fights are likely to take place this year, in June or July and then November or December. Telegraph Sport understands the total deal could be worth £200 million, with the two parties having agreed 28 days ago that sites had to be finalised by Sunday.
Fury announced on Friday that he had “offers on the table” to fight Joshua and would be looking through them and making a decision today (SUN). Before leaving for Las Vegas to go into training, he said: “There’s some big, big offers on the table and I’m going to go through them on Sunday. Hopefully we will get this big fight on.”
Fury holds the WBC heavyweight title, and previously held the WBA, IBF and WBO belts, which are now in the possession of Joshua. Joshua previously fought in the “Clash on the Dunes” at the newly-constructed 15,000-seater Diriyah Arena, while Fury has also fought in Riyadh under bizarre circumstances when he joined WWE for a one-off fight against the 6ft 8in “Monster Among Men” Braun Strowman.
Hearn has also described Saudi as “a definite possibility”. He previously said the choice of Saudi over Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar for the Ruiz fight had been because, “we wanted to go somewhere that had a vision for the sport of boxing”. MBS has pressed ahead with dramatic reform to modernise Saudi but campaigners have repeatedly said his attempts to invest in sport – including the failed £300m takeover at Newcastle United – were distracting from alleged human rights abuses of the country’s population.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, previously said she would be concerned by the prospect of Fury-Joshua taking place in the state at a time “as a means to sportswash its atrocious human rights record”. “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants people around the world to be talking about sport in Saudi Arabia, not the dissidents being locked up after sham trials or the people being tortured in Saudi jails,” she told The Telegraph.
Bill Law, a Middle East analyst and editor of Arab Digest, added: “I don’t want to sound like a moraliser here, but if you want to ask me ‘do I think that these sports people should be taking the big money? On a moral and ethical grounds, I would say absolutely not…. Jamal was a great journalist. He was a lovely guy. What happened to him was unspeakable, so I look at these fighters, these organisations and I just say no, ‘it’s wrong’.” Saudi Arabia was contacted by The Telegraph for comment.
Analysis: Sport and entertainment used to drown out country’s societal and political issues
Despite the terror of a regime where freedom of expression is deadly, Saudi Arabians account for the eighth biggest population of Twitter users globally.
Jail and floggings are among reported punishments for dissidents of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the supposedly reforming and modernising Crown Prince.
In the absence of political debate, the country’s rulers drip feed sporting and entertainment gossip to a population even more likely than Britons to be on social media.
Hype around Saudi hosting Formula 1 this year, the Anthony Joshua fights and the saga around the failed Newcastle United takeover conveniently fill the dialogue both home and abroad.
“This is bread and circus to fill the civil societal space,” says Dr Andreas Krieg, of King’s College London and the Royal College of Defence Studies. “The public sphere is entirely consumed by entertainment and sports because you’re not allowed to speak about societal or political issues,” he adds.
Dr Krieg is one of two experts and associates of Jamal Khashoggi who readily explain to Telegraph Sport why his fiancee is so desperate for the Joshua-Fury fight to be staged elsewhere.
The murder of the Washington Post journalist has been disastrous for MBS’ efforts to earn new Western allies, but domestically the case is just one of countless claims of human rights atrocities. Observers say life in the country is more authoritarian than ever since MBS came to power.
“The very strict enforcement of Sharia law simply goes beyond what Islam intended,” the academic adds. “It’s quite literally chopping people’s hands and heads off, and capital punishment is being used routinely against minors.”
Pressure on MBS following Joe Biden’s election to the White House has led to prisoners of conscience being freed in recent weeks, but Krieg says there can be no moral justification for bringing a major fight to a nation where citizens have been imprisoned just for campaigning on women’s driving rights.
“These people were imprisoned because there can be zero toleration of any form of opposition, any form of critical voices, whether online or offline,” he adds. “When you think about Saudi we always thought about a more repressive, authoritarian country, but it was never as bad as it is under MBS, because at least there was some sort of discourse going on – now it is absolutely zero tolerance.”
Aside from helping fill the vacuum in public debate, bringing big sport to Saudi also helps MBS attempt to convince the world he is a global player. Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), is among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world due to the oil boom of the previous century, with total estimated assets of almost £300billion. It has become a so-called “piggy bank” for MBS, who is reported to have extracted funds directly from it to add to the total pot for Joshua’s previous fight in Riyadh against Andy Ruiz Jr.
Much of MBS’ competitiveness is drawn from a ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ eye on progress on his contemporaries in Qatar and UAE. One has the World Cup, the other owns Manchester City. MBS’ trump card in return is his extraordinary ambition to build an equivalent of Dubai from scratch – the 10,230 square mile Neom development that could cost £400billion.
The shiny marketing materials suggest the city could one day become a major international sporting hub, perhaps one day staging an international sporting competition, but observers, again, are sceptical.
But Dr Krieg says progress at the site currently amounts to an airport and little else as questions mount over the stability of Saudi’s long term financial outlook with oil prices unstable. “Nobody has any real numbers on unemployment but they are at more than 25 per cent among 18 year olds to 35 year olds,” he says.
Bill Law, a Middle East analyst and editor of Arab Digest., says much of MBS’ Vision 2030 – a dramatic remaking of the Saudi economy and Saudi society – will be dependent on sport as “a big part of that agenda”.
The ambition promises to encourage women into sport, creating 40,000 new jobs, but has effectively justified authorities in using the PIF to pursue Newcastle, F1, and now potentially tabling a £100million-plus offer for the Fury-Joshua fight.
“MBS will take anything he can get his hands on because it gives him a much better image and it feeds into his narrative that Saudi Arabia is open and changing, becoming moderate,” Law says. “He’s been very successful in engaging sports. Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Major League Baseball have an exhibition series too. It’s all too irresistible for these big sporting bodies.”
The Joshua-Fury fight will do little to benefit soaring numbers of unemployed, Law explains. “As much as these sporting events are popular with young Saudis, most of them quite frankly can’t afford to go to them because they don’t have jobs,” he said.
“He needs to deliver over a million jobs, and he’s showing no signs of doing that. Young Saudis can’t get married because they can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. So while he’s bringing in all of these splashy big sporting events, and spending hugely on Neon, the basics are not getting done. And I think the longer that goes on, and the more the oil revenues contract, the more difficult it’s going to be for him. That’s where again sports-washing is useful.”