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Team Movistar confirms agreement with Saudi Cycling Federation, raising greenwashing concerns

Saudi Arabia’s troubling human rights record taints new partnership.

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Eyebrows were raised recently amid talk that Team Movistar would be sponsored next season by oil and gas giant Repsol, prompting accusations that the arrangement was a case of greenwashing.

Those claims fizzled out when the team insisted no such agreement existed, but the same criticism has resurfaced and indeed heightened after the announcement on Monday that the Spanish squad had agreed terms with the Saudi Cycling Federation.

Abarca Sports — the managing company of the Movistar Team — said that it signed an agreement on Monday in the presence of Mr. Abdullah Alwathlan, the president of the Saudi Cycling Federation, and Eusebio Unzué, the president of Abarca Sports and general manager of Movistar Team.

“The agreement aims to develop technical staff, enhance cooperation on training programs, exchange experiences, hold regular workshops and support events, races and activities in the Kingdom for years to come. The cooperation between the parties aims to jointly develop cycling projects in the Kingdom at all levels,” read the statement.

No further details of the agreement were disclosed, including the financial terms.

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Two weeks ago Spanish radio show Ondo Cero reported that Repsol would come on board in 2023 and would double the team’s budget.

Team officials denied this at the time, saying that a new co-sponsor was indeed joining the squad, but that it was not Repsol. Indications were that an announcement would come the following week. It is not clear if Monday’s announcement of an agreement with the Saudi Cycling Federation represented that new co-sponsor.

Saudi Arabia has been plowing vast sums of money into international sport in recent years, including Formula 1 and football, with investment in the latter said to exceed one billion dollars. The country has worked with Tour de France organisers ASO since 2020 to stage the Saudi Tour and, this season, caused controversy within golf with the introduction of the LIV Golf tour, a rival to the PGA Tour.

This has seen some of the sport’s biggest players defect to the new setup, with massive sums of money being offered as an incentive. Tiger Woods reportedly turned down an offer of $700-$800 million to join LIV Golf.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of greenwashing in its involvement with professional sport, and of trying to rehabilitate an image tainted by the country’s link to the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001, by numerous human rights abuses including numerous incidences of executions, including public beheadings, and by the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

He was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, an attack the CIA concluded was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and prime minister. He denies any involvement.

Human Rights Watch has been critical of Saudi Arabia, saying that the LIV Golf project is “an effort to distract from its serious human rights abuses by taking over events that celebrate human achievement.”

Saudi Arabia has ranked near the bottom globally in numerous measurements of human rights, including Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” survey of 194 countries. In 2021 Saudi Arabia had the seventh-lowest score with just seven points, compared to the 100 points of top-rated country Sweden.

Movistar’s decision to partner with the country’s cycling federation will draw criticism because of these issues. Questions have also been asked about how Abarca Sports’ laudable backing of the hugely successful Movistar’s women’s team sits alongside Saudi Arabia’s repression of women’s rights.

Cycling has a growing recent history of associations with regimes and countries with poor human rights records.

Monday’s announcement by the Movistar Team follows this pattern and, for the second time in the past fortnight, sees it face claims of greenwashing and questions about its drive for a higher budget in 2023 and beyond.