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Anthony Joshua: Saudi Arabia 'doing a good job politically'

British boxer defends Riyadh when questioned over kingdom's human rights record ahead of bout with Andy Ruiz
Joshua, right, and Ruiz, left, posing with Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority Chief Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal (AFP)

A human rights group has criticised Britsh boxer Anthony Joshua for describing Saudi Arabia as "trying to do a good job politically", as he prepares for his historic fight with Mexican-American Andy Ruiz in the kingdom. 

Amnesty International stepped up its call for Joshua not to take part in Saturday's fight and urged the boxer to do research into Saudi Arabia's human rights record. 

Joshua, who is expected to receive nearly $80m for fighting Ruiz, rejected claims that his fight was an attempt by Saudi authorities to whitewash its human rights record, as it seeks foreign investment to help diversify its economy. 

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"If that was the case I'd definitely have to say I would be bothered," Joshua told the BBC when asked about whether his fight was helping to cover up Riyadh's human rights record. 

"But my only focus is just the boxing. We looked at all different venues but this was the one - I just want to do a job."

The decision to stage high-level sports events in Saudi Arabia forms part of a wider strategy - known as Vision 2030 - that seeks to improve how the kingdom is seen and gradually move it away from its oil-dependent economy.

Saudi Arabia has come under fire for its human rights record, most notably its arrest of women rights activists, and individuals like Essam al-Zamil, who have been critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 project. 

The kingdom carried out a mass execution of 37 men in April, the majority of whom had been tortured or had signed coerced confessions in detention and were convicted in unfair trials, rights groups say. Thirty two were from the kingdom's Shia minority.

The CIA has previously concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing of  Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic and prominent Washington Post columnist, who was murdered inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate on 2 October by Saudi government agents.

'I haven't known much about Amnesty'

When asked about Amnesty's call for Joshua to research Saudi Arabia's human rights record, the boxer said it was the first time he had heard of the organisation.

"I haven't known much about Amnesty because I've spent most of my time in Finchley just training," said Joshua.

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"But as an individual, I try to bring positivity and light everywhere I go. I'm just seeing it from my eyes alone, but for sure the country in itself is trying to do a good job politically." 

Under bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has organised a series of projects aimed at showing the world it is liberalising both its economy and society. 

The events include hosting concerts and sporting events that do not adhere to Riyadh's previous rules on gender segregation. 

Earlier this year, rapper Nicki Minaj cancelled her appearance at the Jeddah World Fest music festival after researching the kingdom's treatment of women and ban on homosexuality. 

'Change the face of boxing in the Middle East'

However, Joshua's promoter, Eddie Hearn, doubled down on the boxer's comments, and said the fight against Ruiz was not endorsing Saudi Arabia's human rights record. 

"It can’t in any way be seen to be endorsing anything, other than our job to provide life-changing opportunities to our clients who take part in one of the most barbaric and dangerous sports that exist,” Hearn said.

“Anthony is going to go down in history - like the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle - two events that also had similar controversy.

"He’s going to be a pioneer and change the face of boxing in the Middle East.”

Riyadh also addressed Amnesty's claims and said that the decision to stage Joshua's fight against Ruiz in the town of Diriyah was part of the Vision 2030 project and aimed at encouraging the population to play more sports.