Several groups and individuals have spoken out with concerns regarding the decision to award the 2029 Asian Winter Games to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has no ski areas and the resort would have to be built in less than 6.5 years in order to be ready in time. The country does not have much of a snowsports track record. However, for the last Olympic games in Beijing, the country sent its first-ever athlete, a self-described ski-bum from Utah, Abdi Fayik. Another skier, Salman Al Howaish had qualified but the country had only been awarded one starting position for the Beijing Games.
Regional Greenpeace campaign manager Ahmed El Droubi reportedly denounced the decision to host the winter games in the desert as “dangerous.” El Droubi has been quoted by several news outlets when he said: “You’re changing a natural ecosystem which can have compounding impacts.” He went on to admit, “I don’t even know if we have the capacity to predict and model such impacts, and it is a very dangerous thing to do, to massively alter ecosystems in this manner.”
The Games are set to be held in Trojena, an area in the northwest of the country close to the Jordanian border and will be part of Saudi Arabia’s ‘Neom’ project. Trojena is in a mountainous region at 4,900 to 8,500 ft (1500 to 2600 m) altitude; the area is dry and receives very little precipitation. Temperatures below the freezing point are rare and snowfall is rare but possible.
Construction for the Neom project, which will stretch from the coast along a linear city called ‘The Line’ of a proposed 170km length (110 miles), started in 2021. Ahmed El Droubi also found fault with ‘The Line’ when he said: “My question is, is there a need for this? Is there a need for really expensive high-end housing in this city? Who needs housing in the region? There is an oversupply of real estate for the rich elite.” He makes a valid point if the properties built in Neom are going to be holiday homes for the rich.
“If we’re thinking sustainably we need to build eco-friendly homes for the populations that are struggling and suffering to find dignified housing.” – El Droubi
“Filling the man-made lake with desalinated water will also be extremely energy-intensive, and not just in the short term,” El Droubi was quoted saying about the artificial lake which is part of the ‘Neom’ project. “It will have to be consistently fed with water and therefore will continue to utilize massive amounts of energy on a long-term basis. Even if it’s powered through renewables, it’s a waste of energy.” The Greenpeace manager highlighted that, “Just because something is powered by renewables doesn’t make it sustainable or environmentally friendly.” The same argument applies naturally to a ski resort in the desert.
Several ski athletes have also come out and spoken publicly about the nomination of Saudi Arabia as the host country. Italy’s World Cup skier and Olympic downhill medalist Sofia Goggia was quoted in an interview with The Associated Press saying, “I am speechless because we are going down a sustainable way and [Saudi Arabia] is building this cathedral in the desert. This is something unreal and surreal.”
Norway’s World Cup skier and Olympic double-medalist Aleksander Aamodt Kilde was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the decision flew in the face of efforts to combat climate change. He said:
“We need to look at the consequences: Why? What do we gain from it, where is this going, and how is it possible? We see that the world is on fire, its really hot summers, it’s going to go bad in the end if you don’t do anything. For producing snow, you need water, and water is also a problem out there.”
Further criticism has come from human rights activists with regard to the displacement of the nomadic population in the area. The Howeitat tribe has been forcibly removed from the area of the Neom project. The Wall Street Journal estimated that up to an additional 20,000 people could be forcibly removed from the area to make room for the project. Those who resisted the inital removal were either sentenced to death or thrown into jail with 50-year prison sentences. One vocal protester, Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, who frequently posted on Twitter, was reportedly killed. Activists are accusing the country of “green-washing” or “sport-washing” their crimes against humanity.
The Asian Olympic Committee approved the bid by Saudi Arabia to host the 2029 Asian Games. The sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal, called it a “Great victory for the Saudi Nation and the whole gulf region.” The victory is relative when you consider that Saudi Arabia was the only contestant.
While it is laudable to build a carbon-neutral city, the fact is that building a city from scratch which uses a considerable amount of energy to start with is hardly in the spirit of trying to be sustainable. Prince Mohammed has tried to paint a more environmentally friendly image of his country and a move to renewable energy which would help the world’s biggest crude exporter to move with the times and future-proof the country. Saudi Arabia has committed to moving towards 50% renewable energy by 2030, but only about 0.1% of electricity was generated this way in 2019.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) was apparently not made aware of the decision by the Asian Olympic Committee. FIS Secretary General Michel Vion stated on Tuesday they were surprised by the appointment. He did stress that FIS did not have to be notified of the appointments but it is customary.
The criticism keeps pouring in, but the question is whether any government or organization will really be bold enough to actually take a stand and challenge the Saudis on this project.