Dakar Rally chiefs defend Saudi deal despite human rights concerns

Al-Qiddiya - Dakar Rally chiefs defended the decision to stage the world's most gruelling motor racing event in Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom's controversial human rights record, claiming there is a "real desire for openness".

The Saudis will host the Dakar from 2020 in a five-year deal, wresting the event from South America where it was staged for 11 years.

Before that, it raced in Africa for 29 years until 2007 when the deteriorating security situation in the country forced the event to seek new surroundings.

However, in the week that the Saudis were widely condemned for the mass execution of 37 people, Dakar organisers insisted they had asked themselves serious questions over the country's human rights record particularly in regard to internal dissent as well as its conduct in the war in neighbouring Yemen.

"We have extended our hand," said David Castera, the new head of the Dakar Rally.

"We asked ourselves the questions but there is a real desire for openness."

In launching the January 5-17 race in the Riyadh suburbs on Thursday, videos highlighted what officials describe as the country's "breathtaking landscapes".

"Today begins a new chapter of the Dakar in the Middle East," said Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, the president of the Saudi Sports Authority. 

"The Dakar will show the true face of Saudi Arabia," added Prince Khalid bin Sultan Abdullah Al Faisal, president of the country's Motor Sports Federation.

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