What is your vision to provide both the entertainment element and public health element of sport?
When I started in the GSA, I asked two main questions: How usable and functional are our sport facilities and how accessible are they to the public? It turns out, we have 40-year-old facilities that are in mint condition, as they were hardly used. In 2015, we conducted a survey to study sports participation and found that only 13% of male Saudis over the age of 15 practice sports more than half an hour per week, which is considerably low. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest per capita figures in the world for obesity and Stage II diabetes, and the latter is directly correlated with activity. We targeted increasing the sports participation ratio to 20% by 2020 and 40% by 2030. The weather in Saudi does not help, and a large part of the journey is raising awareness and educating people about the risks and benefits at an early age. We developed a national strategy for sports based on three pillars. The first is mass participation and entails getting everyone in Saudi involved in our activities and familiar with our facilities. This means sports at all levels, from amateur up to elite top sport, which brings us to the second pillar of building a feeding ground and a talent development system for sports clubs to nurture future champions. Our Olympic Committee will then be able to select a national team from the top players of our clubs. The third pillar is, therefore, the sports economy. Within the sports economy, we should focus on making things easier for the private sector to come in. Today, around 80-90% of the contributions to the sports sector come from the government, which is not sustainable. Top sports in particular need continuity to achieve results. To move our objectives forward, we now have the Mass Participation Federation, headed by Princess Reema. Secondly, we reconstructed our Olympic committee in line with the requirements of the International Olympic Committee. Finally, we have doubled the number of national sports federations from 32 to 64 to help athletes get accredited.
Could you tell us more about the Quality of Life program and the role of GSA?
The program has four pillars: culture, entertainment, and two in sports, meaning GSA owns 50% of the initiative. The first program again focuses on increasing mass participation, with the objective of reaching 40% by 2030, while the second program focuses on better positioning the Kingdom in the international sports arena. Instead of gauging our performance by medals, we will measure the number of athletes competing internationally and follow the improvements in ranking of Saudi teams throughout the year. We should have a system in place to have at least the minimum number of athletes representing the country in each sport. To develop this as a continuous system, we need more private sector participation, for example with sponsorship deals for teams or with revenue models. Olympics are held only once every four years, so the athletes need to be able to compete elsewhere. In the Quality of Life program, we look at how the sports economy can affect the GDP, how to build this conducive ecosystem, and how to create jobs out of it. We benchmarked ourselves against Canada, a country with similar demographics, economic characteristics, and climate challenges—as we both rely on indoor sports during its cold winters and our hot summers. With a similar population, we have around 12,500 people working directly in the sport sector, while it has around 300,000 employees. We can bridge this gap by creating tangible investment opportunities and by developing career paths and educational programs. Currently, sports education does not exist, and the share in the total GDP is not even measured. From our numbers, it is around 0.07%, compared to around 1% in Canada. We have the resources and should thus rethink how we utilize them. The Quality of Life program has 21 initiatives structured around our three main pillars. Within mass participation, two key initiatives are Active Cities and Active People. For this, we collaborate directly with municipalities and development authorities. It is essential to think about sport infrastructure in public spaces, for example, having safe running facilities on the streets or on the Corniche. Currently, we work directly with His Royal Highness the Governor of Jeddah to transform the city into an active city. The Active People programs strive to engage people to come out and participate in public sports events. When we had a two-day event in Riyadh in November, 11,000 people showed up, indicating there is definitely a platform for this. King Abdullah Sport City in Jeddah now opens every Tuesday for various sporting activities, including for families and females. In general, we work to make our facilities more accessible and enjoyable for families. Sports do not have controversies or religious or cultural divisions and thus play a unifying role. According to our survey, 80% of participants are convinced that sports makes their lives better. Our job is to get them started and educate them on the possibilities. With 70% of our population under the age of 30, this will catch on quickly.
How do you envision pulling in or encouraging the private sector to participate in certain elements of sport?
If we increase demand for sports, this will automatically make it more attractive. We need to do the fundamentals to make sports accessible and we need to make it visible. Potential sponsors want exposure and want to put their budget into something that positively reflects on them. Each year, we have around 3,000 sporting events, which is a great starting point. We want to support our sport federation to have more accessibility at the facilities and to promote their sports to the wider public. Also, we should think about how to cover this in the media. Most of our sports journalists are football journalists, so there is room for growth there. If demand and visibility of the sports increases, the private sector will automatically come in. When we organized the first Riyadh Marathon in a short timeframe, we had 35,000 registered participants and many sponsors that were eager to join in. The involvement of GSA helps to give it more credibility. The private sector wants sustainability and trust, and with our plans we can deliver on these expectations.
What is your expectation of the impact of Saudi's participation in the FIFA World Cup in Russia?
When we qualified, the general vibe and positivity was overwhelming. Everyone rallied around the Saudi team and it created a truly positive atmosphere within the Kingdom. The World Cup is tough, and if we want to compete, our players have to play in the best football leagues, ideally in Europe. In order to prepare our team, we need to have a proper four-year plan in place. We are determined to create the best top sport climate for our team and give it maximum support. For now, it is great exposure and I am sure our players will perform at their best. We have been in talks with the NBA, NFL, NHL, and Nike to see how we can capitalize on our development of our leagues in the future. One of our athletes was part of the development team of the sports hijab for Nike, and we supported that. The World Cup is great way to demonstrate our commitment to the development of a serious and focused sports industry.