The Dakar Rally hasn't actually run to Dakar since 2008, when threats made to the event forced them to cancel that year and prompted a move to South America for 2009. Now it's likely moving yet again, this time to the oil-rich nation of Saudi Arabia.
The Amaury Sport Organisation that organizes the Dakar Rally has signed a five-year deal with Saudi Arabia to move the event there, according to Autosport. While the ASO would not confirm anything to Autosport, they expect an announcement to come in the following weeks.
This year's Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al-Attiyah was more than happy to comment, however, as this brings the rally closer to his home in Qatar. Al-Attiyah told Autosport that the rally will likely expand to other Middle Eastern countries in the future:
Likewise, sources who have a "relationship with the ASO" confirmed the Saudi move to Cycle World.
Saudi Arabia will apparently be next year's new starting point, though, with competitors setting off from Riyadh next January. The terrain should be similar to what the Dakar Rally is used to, with 1.4-million square miles of desert as well as the Asir mountain range.
Part of the reason why the ASO would move out of South America was the fact that the entire rally was run in one country this year: Peru. Neighboring countries Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia could not come to an agreement with the ASO to host parts of the rally there. "Economic uncertainty" also drove the ASO to look to South Africa and the Middle East to host the rally for next year, Autosport notes.
Economics may certainly explain why an event that changed continents to avoid conflicts in Africa would even consider Saudi Arabia, a country currently involved in a deadly clash with its neighboring country Yemen. Saudi Arabia reportedly offered the ASO $15 million per year to host the rally over the next five years, which was huge compared to the $3 million Chile is said to have offered for next year's race, reports Cycle World. If the rally expands to countries around Saudi Arabia in the next five years, Saudi Arabia will foot the bill for those other countries.
That war in Yemen has become one of the worst humanitarian crises on earth, displacing over three million people and leaving over 15 million affected by famine, per the United Nations. The conflict has obliterated Yemen's infrastructure, allowing otherwise treatable diseases like cholera to thrive. United Nations investigators claim that the Saudi-led coalition forces have killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes that have hit everything from residential areas to hospitals and weddings, used child soldiers as young as 8-years-old, and tortured detainees, reports the New York Times.
Even with the extra money, it's hard not to feel like the Dakar Rally is getting played, just like any other sporting event that's held in an oppressive regime. Saudi Arabia does not want you to focus on its abysmal human rights record, the recent murder of a dissident journalist in one of its embassies, or its war in Yemen. They'd rather have you see that there's wrestling, racing, or any number of major sporting events like any other normal country would have. Normal things!
Saudi Arabia desperately wants to put forth this image of a normal country. Its Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has instituted a number of reforms aimed at cracking down on corruption, relaxing some of the stricter social rules and lessening the economy's reliance on oil through a broader economic plan called Vision 2030.
Part of Vision 2030, as Deadspin notes, is a big investment in sports. It's no coincidence that the relatively progressive-sounding Vision 2030 was unveiled three months after the Saudi royal family executed 47 dissidents, either. This vision of a hospitable, modernizing nation is there to distract you.
Worse yet, many of these reforms are mostly just window dressing on a still-brutal system, as Deadspin points out:
Saudi women may be able to participate more in sports, go to certain kinds of entertainment events, and drive, but they still aren't actually free. Tickets for the WWE's recent Greatest Royal Rumble there, for example, were still sold in a gender-segregated way, where women weren't allowed to select seats in certain sections and weren't even allowed to attend at all without a male guardian.
And yet, those ticketing woes seem like a minor nuisance compared to the torture and long detention of the women's rights activists who protested for the right to drive. Or anyone who isn't straight, as their mere existence is considered a punishable offense in Saudi Arabia.
Letting Dakar athletes of all genders blast through the Saudi desert likely won't change the numerous human rights issues there, but you can all but guarantee that the international media will applaud how "progressive" Saudi Arabia is or "how far it's come" when it runs there. That's how this always works, and Saudi Arabia knows it.
That's why you should always wonder why, for example, Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag was encouraged by the Saudi authorities to showcase women driving on track. Agag told Motorsport 101:
It's very clear from that statement that Saudi Arabia uses these racing events to soften its image abroad. It should not be a racing series' job to run PR for an authoritarian state, but here we are.
If Dakar makes this move, we shouldn't applaud Saudi Arabia for letting female competitors ride through the desert if a local competitor doing the same would require permission from a man. Basic human rights are an expectation, not something you trot out in a public display for applause.
(The Drive has reached out to the ASO for confirmation of Dakar Rally rumored change, and details as to what it means for competitors in the future, and will update this article if we hear back.)