Saudi Arabia in running to host America’s Cup, despite being ‘p----- off’ with 2024 snub

Grant Dalton, chief executive of the America's Cup
Grant Dalton, chief executive of the America's Cup - Ricardo Pinto

Grant Dalton, chief executive of the 37th America’s Cup in Barcelona next year, has admitted Saudi Arabia is in the running to host the 2028 edition of sport’s oldest international trophy after a “hugely successful” regatta in Jeddah over the last three days.

In an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport, Dalton dismissed concerns about ‘sportswashing’, saying the Saudis were excellent hosts and partners.

Saudi Arabia has been on a sporting land grab over the last few years, bringing top level football, boxing, golf, tennis and Formula One to the Kingdom as part of a long-term strategy. The Fifa World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world outside of the Olympics, is set to take place in the country in 2034.

Saudi Arabia also bid for the 37th America’s Cup. But Dalton, who is also chief executive of defenders Emirates Team New Zealand, in the end agreed a deal with Barcelona after it became clear that it would not be commercially viable to keep the Cup in Auckland. But he admitted if New Zealand successfully defended the Cup again, he would have no issue returning to Saudi Arabia.

‘We made the right call not to come here next year’

“I think we made the right call not to come here next year,” Dalton said. “And I think the Saudis would agree with that now, even though they were pretty p----- off at the time. It was too soon. But we may well be back. It’s up to them if they want to bid of course.”

Dalton said he “could not be happier” with how the event in Jeddah went. The three-day regatta, won by New Zealand, was the second of two preliminary regattas building up to next autumn’s Cup in Barcelona. “It’s perfect here,” Dalton said of the port city on the Red Sea, which also hosts the F1 grand prix. “The conditions are perfect, the facilities are world class.”

Dalton added that Jeddah had defied the doom-mongers, reserving particular criticism for challengers American Magic, whom he accused of stirring up misplaced security fears and trying to have the event cancelled. “I think what people are finding who have never been [to Saudi] before is that it’s not what they thought it was,” Dalton said. “A lot of people talk themselves into believing they’re about to go to Mogadishu in Blackhawk Down.

“I think that was the mindset the Americans got themselves into. They were obsessed. They were asking questions like ‘What happens if an explosive-laden jetski smashes into one of the boats?’ ‘What if they shut the airspace and we can’t get out?’

“The bit they didn’t understand was that if the [Saudi] Ministry of Sport felt it was a problem with Israel and Gaza they would have been the first to cancel because that’s the last thing they need when they’re trying to grow sport in the country.

“The Americans are pretty sheepish now. Terry [Hutchinson, skipper of American Magic] was at the [ATP Tour] tennis in Jeddah last night.”

A spokesperson for American Magic later denied that last claim, saying: “Neither Terry Hutchinson nor any member of the American Magic team was at that particular event.”

On criticism of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and whether the country was using sport to deflect attention from that, Dalton said: “There are always plenty of cliched answers to that. ‘You can’t change from without, you have to change from within’ etc.

“All I would say is they are excellent partners. They are hospitable. There’s a real will to help and they get things done. And when you’re running an event that’s pretty enticing…. you’re not caught in a political shitstorm every time you want to put a door in the side of a building.

“They are also using sailing to inspire. The Jeddah Yacht Club academy has already put 2000 youngsters through, girls and boys. And this academy has literally in the last few days been given the go ahead to expand throughout Saudi.

“Maybe it is ‘sportswashing’, whatever that is. But if it’s good for sailing, and it’s good for Saudi, that’s good enough for me.”

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