Argentina and Paris Saint Germain football superstar Lionel Messi has been accused of “sportswashing” after he was unveiled as the new tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia.
Messi visited Jeddah’s historic area on Tuesday to showcase the country’s ambitions to boost its tourism industry.
Messi landed in the Kingdom on Monday night and was welcomed by Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb.
“I am happy to welcome Lionel,” said Al Khateeb. “We are delighted to have him explore the treasure of the Red Sea, the Jeddah station and our ancient history. This is not his first visit to the Kingdom and it will not be his last.”
He was then hosted and accompanied by Princess Haifa Al-Saud, assistant minister of tourism.
On Tuesday Princess Haifa wrote on her Twitter account: “Earlier today, I had a great time showing Messi and his friends around the historic area of Jeddah. I am glad that he was mesmerized by its essence, heritage and beauty.”
Messi and his friends toured various parts of old Jeddah, becoming acquainted with its ancient landmarks which are registered on the heritage list of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The player himself posted an image of himself in Saudi Arabia on Instagram. “Discovering the Red Sea in Saudi. #VisitSaudi” wrote Messi.
But Amnesty International said: “Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority may well have plans to attempt to rebrand the Kingdom’s reputation, but we should not forget the cruelty that continues in the country.
“Saudi Arabia is currently jailing and torturing dissidents and human rights defenders, is heavily involved in the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and homes in Yemen, and the spectre of Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder hangs over the entire Saudi government.
“Countries like Saudi Arabia are well aware of the ‘sportswashing’ value of hosting major international entertainment and sporting events.”
Last year Cristiano Ronaldo turned down a $6m offer to work commercially with the Saudis.