Saudi Arabia has announced a series of new cricket competitions to help establish the sport in the Kingdom and compete more readily at international level.
Although cricket has been played widely among expatriates from South Asian communities for some years, this is thought to be the first large-scale attempt to attract Saudis themselves to the sport.
The new mega-city of Neom – named after a combination of Greek and Arabic words meaning "new future" – has been outlined for cricket facilities catering to the 35,000 people currently working on the project, the first part of which is scheduled for completion by 2025. Ambitious plans for the city include a huge artificial moon, glow-in-the-dark beaches and flying taxis, according to reports.
Four new programmes have been funded, including a first National Cricket Championship, which finished last week and attracted the participation of 7,000 players in about 360 teams over a four-week period.
The programmes – which also include a corporate cricket tournament scheduled for October, a cricket league for expatriates, who make up 37 per cent of the 34 million Saudi population, and social cricket in a number of cities – were put in place by the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation, which was formed in 2020 and will now serve as the single body for all cricketing matters.
Its chairman, Prince Saud Bin Mishal Al Saud, told Arab News: "We signed a deal to launch four programmes and we started with the National Cricket Championship. It is the biggest cricket tournament in the history of Saudi Arabia.
"We are planning to have 20,000 participants in these programmes in 2021."
He added: "One of our biggest plans is to have a proper infrastructure for the game since we don't have it today. We are planning to have cricket academies, more grounds, better facilities with entertainment and other services around them to attract Saudi as well as foreign youth to the game."
The federation's plans, however, have much greater ambition than simply community-level involvement. Ultimately, it hopes to produce competitive national teams.
"We are currently 28th out of 105 countries in the ICC T20 global rankings, which is good," said Prince Saud. "We became an ICC member in 2003 and worked our way up to this rank. Now we are signing up qualified coaches and advisors for us to become an even better team.
"We are talking to coaches and legends of the game, and we will have them qualify and improve coaches in domestic cricket and help at the national level."
Cynics, however, may see the whole project as another attempt by the Kingdom's rulers to use sport to garner acceptance and popularity around the world – a report due out next week accuses them of spending £1.5bn on high-profile events such as the world's richest horse race and Formula One to mitigate against human rights abuses.
And the Neom project – which is expected to cost £500bn – has already attracted criticism. Part of the site, which is the size of Belgium and on the northern end of Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline, has belonged to the Huwaitat tribe for generations. At least 20,000 of them will be evicted with no news of where they will subsequently be housed, a report in The Guardian claimed last year.