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Cristiano Ronaldo, Anthony Joshua, lifting the booze ban and spending a TRILLION dollars on a brand-new futuristic city: Inside how Saudi Arabia is throwing cash at a post-oil future

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It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia has launched its official bid to host the 2034 World Cup Finals just days after the opening of the first off-licence in the Kingdom for 72 years.

The small shop in the diplomatic quarter of this capital can serve only non-Muslim members of embassy staffs who have to register with the local government and are restricted to a monthly quota of purchases.

Thus its door is only ajar at the moment but that narrow aperture is expected to widen into another floodgate of change as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman drives the social and cultural reforms now sweeping the country where Anthony Joshua fights on Friday.

Alcohol has been banned here since 1952 when a drunken prince embarrassed his king by killing a British diplomat during a heated, bleary argument. The justification for last week’s wary, token relaxation is that it will put a stop to the increasing prevalence of embassy officials smuggling hooch into their compounds inside anything from sealed diplomatic pouches to imported furniture. 

Then selling on much of the liquor to a thirsty public for sizeable profits. In one infamous case, crates of whisky – at £2,000 a bottle – were hidden in a grand piano.

Saudi Arabia are building a $500 billion futuristic megacity in the desert known as The Line

Saudi Arabia are building a $500 billion futuristic megacity in the desert known as The Line

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (pictured) has made Saudi Arabia a global sporting hub

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (pictured) has made Saudi Arabia a global sporting hub

The Middle East nation will host this week's heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou

The Middle East nation will host this week’s heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou

The unspoken reality is that Bin Salman needs controlled access to booze to smooth the path to World Cup prestige. Just as Saudi’s regional rivals Qatar accepted two years ago.

Not that this bid needs to be swilled down by gallons upon gallons of beer. ‘Saudi 34’ became a done deal with FIFA – and a hugely enriching one to boot – from the moment Australia withdrew the only other challenge.

But this hitherto bone-dry land will need a managed flow of the hard stuff if it is to use the World Cup as a platform for boosting tourism as one of the major substitutes for oil in its economy. The harsh truth is that the surge of fans from around the planet will not be as numerous if they can’t buy a drink. 

And if that constraint persists those who do come are unlikely to bring their families back to wonder at the historic marvels and gaze in awe at the spectacular sandscapes of this once forbidden land. Certainly not if they come from America, Germany, Down Under, the Far East and, oh yes, the UK.

Whatever the west may think of the Crown Prince, whatever the truth of allegations against him, the more we see of his modernising of his country the more simplistic it becomes to dismiss his massive investment in major sporting events as just ‘sportswashing’ the Saudi image.

He is planning for his country’s future. For the time when the economy will have to be lubricated not by oil, as the demand for black gold diminishes, but by the flow of tourists and the influx of major businesses.

Tyson Fury will face Oleksandr Usyk in an undisputed heavyweight clash in Saudi Arabia in May

Tyson Fury will face Oleksandr Usyk in an undisputed heavyweight clash in Saudi Arabia in May

Saudi Arabia also has a Grand Prix, and is attracting some of sport's biggest events

Saudi Arabia also has a Grand Prix, and is attracting some of sport’s biggest events

Bin Salman has been at trackside to watch the world's best drivers in action

Bin Salman has been at trackside to watch the world’s best drivers in action

Saudi Arabia also boasts lush golf courses that attract some of golf's elite players

Saudi Arabia also boasts lush golf courses that attract some of golf’s elite players

Joshua’s mega-millions boxing match against Francis Ngannou here this Friday night is not a blind against civil rights abuses. It is another building block in the new Saudi Arabia. As will be Tyson Fury’s fight with Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed world heavyweight championship in May.

The virtue signallers are outraged by the eight-figure purses being paid to the world’s best prize-fighters. Many of them the same voices who used to bewail how even the greatest boxers used to end up destitute rather than being rewarded with generational wealth for risking their lives.

For some reason the self-righteous seem less aghast at the fortunes being dispersed among star golfers, tennis players and Formula One drivers.

The footballers are getting it in the neck, of course. Supposedly for selling their souls to an authoritarian regime. With not a flicker of realisation that the only hope the Saudis have of fielding a credible, competitive national team in their home World Cup as soon as 10 years from now will be for their current generation of youngsters to garner the experience of playing every minute possible alongside some of the world’s finest.

Starting with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Saudi Arabia enticed Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo away from Europe

Saudi Arabia enticed Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo away from Europe

They also hosted the Club World Cup in January, which was won by Pep Guardiola's Man City

They also hosted the Club World Cup in January, which was won by Pep Guardiola’s Man City

Bin Salman, himself a lover of sport, knows its importance to all national psyches. Far from being the laundryman, he is using the appeal of these big events to help attract gigantic investment in one of the most spectacular and challenging projects ever conceived by mankind.

Its name is Neom City but it is far more than just a metropolis. It is a new world. It is a long tract of land upon which is being built, among countless elements, the stellar bases for the most futuristic technologies yet envisaged by man, or woman.

The core is called The Line. Through its 110-mile length – from the mountains to the Gulf of Aqaba – there will be no buses, cars, streets or carbon emissions. There will be a series of communities whose residents will be within walking distance across grassy gardens of every amenity and entertainment imaginable. Should they wish to venture further they will be able to board a high speed train capable of travelling from one end of The Line to the other inside 20 minutes.

All under one long, thin, unbroken roof to both protect against the sun and to harvest its energy. At the Aqaba terminal they will find a marina of hugely more advance technology than the one in Monte Carlo. Also lush golf courses. Plus glamorous hotels which, in anticipation of the alcohol ban being lifted for foreign visitors on those premises and in high class restaurants, are being built complete with bars.

As they will be all down The Line. Just as existing five-star properties in the historic cities are already being modified for the service of mocktails today in readiness for the mixing of cocktails the day after tomorrow. Not that the end of prohibition should be misinterpreted as an invitation to inebriation. Drunk and disorderly behaviour will still be a severely punishable crime.

Bars are now being opened in Saudi Arabia and strict laws have been relaxed

Bars are now being opened in Saudi Arabia and strict laws have been relaxed

Construction of Neom and The Line is being limited to three stories in height, the underground level of which will house advanced technology to supply and monitor all the services on the surface. The structures are slender ‘so as to protect not only the atmosphere but also the environment by turning away from skyscrapers and building in the horizontal’.

Neom will be home to 9m Saudis, a quarter of the population. It is expected to create at least 460,000 new jobs, the majority for young people who now make up more than 70 per cent of the workforce. The cost, of somewhere between 500 billion and one trillion dollars, is projected to add $50 billion annually to Saudi’s Gross Domestic Product.

Bin Salman is budgeting for tourism to provide a 1.2 per cent increase in GDP. All by the target date of his astonishing Vision 2030.

Civil Rights are serious issues but the Crown Prince, as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia on behalf of his aging father, is slowly winning the battle against abuses.

He has given women the right to drive, to modernise how they dress and to go out together without male relatives. In the shopping malls and cafes of Riyadh now the majority of the women who lunch and chat are no longer covered from head to toe with the sole exception of their eyes.

Lashings of punishment with executions included – as they are in much of America by the way – remain the deterrent to crime but Bin Salman is thought to be inclined towards less extreme measures.

Emancipation is not a factor, since the men don’t vote either in an unelected monarchy. But you have to wonder whether the mind-blowing projects of Bin Salman’s fertile imagination could ever be accomplished back home. Highly doubtful since we are no longer capable of filling pot-holes in our roads.

History teaches us that all empires, no matter how great, fall in the end. Hence Western democracy is crumbling beneath the feet of impotent leaders capable only of massaging their own egos but with no grasp of the problems besetting their constituents. Yet we still have the effrontery to lecture others in the world on how to go about their own evolution.

Joshua looks set to light up the big stage later this week as he aims to make a statement

Joshua looks set to light up the big stage later this week as he aims to make a statement

Fury will want to do the same against Usyk in Saudi Arabia to prove he's the best heavyweight on the planet

Fury will want to do the same against Usyk in Saudi Arabia to prove he’s the best heavyweight on the planet

One day in the not too distant future we will wake up to find ourselves lagging way behind this country which we presume to patronise even as it is turning science fiction into reality. While businessmen hamstrung by our failing economy go cap in hand begging for some of the vast contracts for which the Saudis are about to take tenders at a gigantic investment forum here.

I suspect that the Crown Prince – while mindful of the reservations held by the clerics, his father and a profoundly religious population – will secure drinking rights for we the visitors. Not in time for us to raise glasses to Joshua and Fury should they be victorious but in good time for their World Cup.

But can even he make his mammoth Vision 2030 rise from the sands in only six years? It is a question answered when his lieutenants point at the dazzling stadium beneath the roof of which AJ and the Gypsy King will soon go about their brutal business and inform us that it was built in 90 days. Yes THIRTEEN weeks.

Since there are no confirmed reports of construction workers being killed in the rush, as was the case in Qatar, we can assume that tea breaks are not in vogue on building sites here.