The decision to launch a new stage race in Saudi Arabia has been condemned by a human rights organisation, which says “cycling is increasingly associated with repression.”
This week Tour de France organiser ASO announced a new week-long race will be held in the Middle East early next season.
But the decision to host the new Saudi Tour has been met with criticism from some fans, journalists and human rights groups.
The director of the International Service for Human Rights, Phil Lynch, is one of those to speak out strongly against the decision.
Mr Lynch, also a cycling fan, said: “Historically, cycling has been a sport associated with values of egalitarianism and freedom, both of movement and expression.
“Regrettably, professional cycling is becoming increasingly associated with values of authoritarianism and repression.”
ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), the company behind dozens of sporting events including the Tour and Paris-Roubaix, has confirmed the inaugural Saudi Tour will take place over five stages early next season.
CEO of ASO Yann Le Moenner said: “We are involved in the emergence of a new racing scene in the Middle East, which corresponds to the riders’ demands at the beginning of the year.
“This is also for us an occasion to contribute to the development of cycling across the Kingdom.”
President of the Saudi Cycling Federation, Sabah Al-Kraidees, said: “It is an honour for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Cycling Federation to host an international sporting event of this magnitude.
“The Saudi Tour is a great opportunity to publicise the country’s varied territories and historic sites and to let visitors discover our sense of hospitality.
“For this first edition, world-class riders from around the world will ride on the surrounding roads of the capital, Riyadh. This initiative fits perfectly with the ambition of Saudi Arabia to promote the Kingdom beyond its borders while promoting sport and especially cycling.”
The 2.1 category race will be held from February 4-8, with racing around Saudi capital Riyadh and the surrounding desert hills.
According to Amnesty International, rights to freedom of expression are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia, human rights campaigners are targeted by authorities, women face discrimination in law and practice, and torture of detainees is “common and widespread.”
In October last year Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the government, was assassinated by state operatives inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Mr Lynch argues the Saudi government will use the new race to distract attention from assassination of Khashoggi and the detention of women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, who was kidnapped and imprisoned in March last year.
He said: “The UCI should not sanction – and ASO should not profit from – a race which will be used by the Saudi authorities to sportswash a widespread and systematic human rights violations such as the extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the arbitrary detention and torture of woman human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul.”
The UCI declined to comment, while ASO has not responded to a request made by Cycling Weekly.