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Saudi Arabia is spending billions to become a global gaming hub. Some fans don’t want to play



Saudi Arabia aims to become the “ultimate global hub” of the $180 billion-a-year video game industry

Saudi Arabia, the new home of some of soccer’s biggest stars and a co-owner of professional golf, is proving to be no less ambitious when it comes to another global pastime – the $180 billion-a-year video game industry.

Last September, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund earmarked nearly $40 billion for a new conglomerate aimed at transforming the kingdom into the “ultimate global hub” for games and esports by 2030. In February, the Saudi fund became the biggest outside investor in Nintendo, and just this month the kingdom hosted a major gaming tournament with a record $45 million prize pool.

That’s made Saudi Arabia an increasingly important player in the industry and contributed to its breakneck transformation from an insular kingdom best known for oil and ultraconservative Islam into an emerging sports and entertainment powerhouse.

Saudi Arabia Gaming Giant

The move into gaming has sparked the same kind of backlash seen in soccer and golf, where critics accuse the Saudis of “sportswashing” human rights abuses, including the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident.

With gaming, a kingdom that sentences people to decades in prison over a few tweets is joining a worldwide community dominated by the young and very online.

“It’s the Romans and the Colosseum all over again, and you have countries at the top layer using sports as a theater to display their wealth and their power,” said Joost van Dreunen, a professor at New York University who has written a book about the business of video games.

Saudi Arabia Gaming Giant

“You have to ask the question: Who is the architect behind this, and what are the intentions of these architects?” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly an avid gamer himself, sees the foray into gaming as part of Vision 2030, his ambitious plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy, reduce its reliance on oil and provide jobs and entertainment for its youthful population.


“We are harnessing the untapped potential across the esports and games sector to diversify our economy,” he said last September, when he announced the establishment of the Savvy Games Group.

Owned by Saudi Arabia’s $700 billion Public Investment Fund and led by CEO Brian Ward, an industry veteran, Savvy aims to invest $39 billion in the gaming industry. It hopes to establish 250 local companies and create 39,000 jobs in the next seven years.

Earlier this month, it completed the $4.9 billion purchase of Scopely, the creator of “Monopoly Go,” “Star Trek Fleet Command” and “Marvel Strike Force.”

Saudi Arabia Gaming Giant

Gaming is a massive and fast-growing industry. Market research firm Newzoo says an estimated 3.2 billion people play games on PCs, consoles, mobile devices or cloud gaming services, with the industry generating $184.4 billion in revenues in 2022. Gaming brings in more money than the combined earnings of the global box office, music streaming and album sales, and the top five wealthiest sports leagues, according to a 2021 report by the Boston Consulting Group.

The kingdom is also breaking into the world of esports, competitions pitting the world’s top players against one another in games ranging from battle royales and first-person shooters to “FIFA” soccer and “Madden NFL.”

To the uninitiated, the prospect of watching other people play video games may seem unappealing, but it’s a huge business with millions of fans, celebrity players and corporate sponsors. A 2021 esports tournament in Singapore drew 5.4 million concurrent viewers.

“When you invest in esports you are getting prime advertising opportunities, and of course, you are promoting the brand of your country as a cool, forward-thinking, interesting place to go on holiday,” said Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at the European Center for International Affairs, a Brussels-based think tank.

“(Esports) is far younger and more global than any other sport,” he added. “English soccer is popular everywhere in the West, but not really in an average-sized Chinese city. But these esports are.”

Last summer, Saudi Arabia hosted Gamers8, a weekslong tournament with a $15 million prize pool. The event returned this month with a prize pool three times as large.

Saudi Arabia’s wealthy Gulf neighbors are also looking to get in on the action. Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, hosted a five-day esports festival last month. The Qatar Investment Authority recently purchased a minority stake in Monument Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards and Capitals, as well as esport holdings.

The growing involvement of autocratic Gulf states has sparked debate within the gaming community.

Riot Games, the developer of the popular “League of Legends,” a multiplayer battle game, and Danish tournament organizer Blast Premier both canceled partnerships with Saudi Arabia in 2020 following an outcry from fans. Blast went on to hold its world finals in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, where it faced similar criticism.

The Team Liquid statement acknowledged the financial and ethical trade-offs of accepting sponsorship from such countries.

“These events present real opportunities for our players, many of whom may have short careers with few guarantees,” it said. “An outright boycott might not only end careers, it could end our involvement in some esports entirely.”

Stanis Elsborg, a senior analyst at Play the Game, an international initiative that aims to promote ethics in sports, and who has written extensively on the intersection of esports and the Gulf’s ambitions, says it’s a dilemma that is likely to recur.

“Money talks,” he said. “I think the esports scene will be following the same trajectory as we have seen in other sports, forming significant partnerships with state-owned companies from autocratic states.”

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Iran says unblocked South Korea funds to be used for ‘non-sanctioned goods’




  • Washington said there would be restrictions on what Iran could do with any funds unfrozen

LONDON: Iran’s central bank chief said on Saturday that all of Iran’s frozen funds in South Korea had been unblocked and would be used for “non-sanctioned goods.”
Mohammad Reza Farzin’s post on social media appeared to confirm comments a day earlier by Washington, which said there would be restrictions on what Iran could do with any funds unfrozen under an emerging deal that has led to the release of five Americans from prison to house arrest in Tehran.
White House spokesperson John Kirby said Iran could only access the funds “to buy food, medicine, medical equipment that would not have a dual military use.” An estimated $6 billion in Iranian assets have been held in South Korea.
The five Americans will be allowed to leave Iran once the funds are unfrozen, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Farzin wrote in a post on messaging platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that the funds would be transferred to six Iranian banks in Qatar.
“Congratulations to the foreign exchange diplomacy team for successfully releasing seized foreign currency resources,” he said in the post.
He added that the costs of converting the funds from South Korea’s won currency to euros would be accepted by the “third country” where the money would be deposited to buy “non-sanctioned goods.”

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How ‘a monumental catastrophe’ was averted with offloading of Safer near Yemen’s Red Sea coast




  • Decaying oil-storage vessel moored in the Red Sea posed massive environmental and humanitarian threat

  • First phase of operation succeeds in removing most of the 1.14 million barrels of crude oil held by the Safer

DUBAI: The news that the threat of a massive oil spill in the Red Sea has receded with the transfer of more than a million barrels of oil from the FSO Safer, a dilapidated storage vessel lying off the coast of Yemen, has come as a huge relief for nearby countries, UN officials and environmentalists.

After months of on-site preparatory work, the $143 million operation got underway at the end of July, with the goal of defusing what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had described as “the world’s largest ticking time bomb.”

A team of workers hired by the United Nations started transferring oil from the rusting super-tanker FSO Safer off war-torn Yemen on July 25. (AFP/File)

An international team siphoned the crude out of the Safer to another vessel — the Nautica, later renamed the Yemen — bought by the UN for the salvage mission.

In a statement on Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated the Kingdom’s appreciation for the efforts of Guterres and the UN working team who “worked to harness all efforts to end the problem of the Safer tanker.”

Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to provide financial grants for the offloading operation through donations via the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid.

The Saudi foreign ministry also thanked the Command of the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen for “facilitating the operational plan process until the … completion of the unloading of the floating tanker Safer.”


“Thank God, it is over,” Walid Khadduri, an oil analyst and former editor-in-chief of the Middle East Economic Survey, told Arab News from Beirut. “The UN working team prevented a veritable catastrophe from happening. It could have been a major one.”

The Red Sea and its “distinct ecosystem,” with coral reefs and seagrass beds, would have been most at risk, he said.

“The environment would have been the hardest hit by an oil spill, followed by maritime traffic.”

Anticipating the possibility of a spill in the course of the oil transfer operation, the United Nations traineda local team in Hodeidah on the use of floating booms (temporary barrier) to protect the coast. (AFP/file photo)

Now that most of the oil has been transferred from the Safer, saving Red Sea ecosystems and fishing communities up and down the Yemen coast from potential disaster, a UN-purchased vessel will tow the Safer to a “green scrapping yard.”

Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN’s Development Program, described the offloading operation as “one of the most significant preventative actions taken in recent years.”

He said: “Some of you have written and called the FSO Safer a ticking time bomb. I think it is fair to say that as of today, that ticking is no longer an immediate threat.”

The Safer, a 47-year-old floating oil storage vessel, was moored in the Red Sea, north of the Yemeni ports of Hodeidah and Ras Issa — a strategic area controlled by the Houthi militia.

It was built in the 1970s and later sold to the Yemeni government to hold up to 3 million barrels of crude oil pumped from the fields of Marib, a province in eastern Yemen.

The vessel was 1,181 feet long with 34 storage tanks, and held more than 1.14 million barrels of oil before the UN operation began — four times as much as was spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska, one of the world’s worst ecological crises, according to the UN.

Minimal maintenance since Yemen’s civil war began in 2015 left the Safer vulnerable to corrosion and increased the risk of leaks.

The removal of oil was the culmination of almost two years of political groundwork, fundraising and project development.

Donations to fund the offloading operation from 23 UN member states, the EU, the private sector and public groups have exceeded $121 million, but a further $20 million is needed to scrap the Safer and remove any remaining ecological threats to the Red Sea.

Hasan Selim Ozertem, a security and energy analyst, described the UN operation as a “critical intervention to prevent an ecological disaster,” adding that “it is not possible to totally eliminate the risk of oil spill as witnessed from so many disasters in the past.”

In this photo supplied by international dredging and heavylift company Boskalis, workers are shown pumping oil from from the FSO Safer to a replacement tanker in July 2023. (Boskalis photo)

He told Arab News from Ankara that it is important to note that the international community, represented by the UNDP, supported the oil removal operation.

“This experience holds lessons on how to avert such situations in the future. Considering how complicated the Yemen situation is, no mission should be treated as impossible.

“Be it the Syrian war or the Israel-Palestine conflict, every crisis requires political will on the part of regional actors to reach a solution. The UN by itself does not have the necessary carrots and sticks to impose solutions; it can only facilitate the process.”


FSO Safer was moored off coast of Yemen with minimal maintenance.

Vessel held 4x as much oil as was spilled in 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Saudi Arabia provided financial grants for the offloading operation.

In comments to the media on Friday, David Gressly, the UN’s resident coordinator in Yemen, highlighted that the two captains involved in the operation on board the Safer were invited to travel from Aden to take part in the project, which he described as “an indication of the importance of going beyond the day-to-day concerns that exist in the civil war that continues here.”

He said the success of the salvage mission, at a regional level, has lifted the spirits of the Yemeni people, and expressed hope that the ability of adversaries to work together to address one critical problem might lay the groundwork for broader cooperation and peace negotiations.

In this photo supplied by international dredging and heavylift company Boskalis, workers are shown pumping oil from from the FSO Safer to a replacement tanker in July 2023. (Boskalis photo)

The success of the offloading operation serves as a testament to the power of diplomacy, patience and transparency in efforts to foster collaboration in even the most challenging of situations, he added.

“It’s a good Friday,” Gressly told Arab News. “We feel good about what we’ve seen today. It’s nice to see something advancing as it did here. In terms of the larger political dialogue, of course, it won’t contribute directly to that. But I have to say (it) does create a bit of hope for people that there is a way forward.

“And, then, while the parties are adversaries, they did find a way to set aside those differences long enough to deal with this particular problem. And that can create, I think, conditions more conducive for negotiations.

“And also, I think the fact that the (memorandum of understanding) that was signed back in March last year, that so far has been adhered to by Sana’a. is a good sign that you can have a successful negotiation in this context.

“That does not guarantee it but it does create a sense of hope that may not have been there before. And I hope those that are in a position to do so can take advantage of whatever momentum this is creating to go forth.”

Likewise, UNDP’s Steiner said that in the broader context of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the success of the Safer operation offers “a glimpse of hope,” especially amid wider shifts in the dynamics of the region and within Yemen itself.

Staff of a vessel in charge of unloading oil from the decaying vessel FSO Safer are pictured off the coast of Ras Issa, Yemen. (AFP)

“UNDP, which works in virtually all parts of the country, has estimated that Yemen over the last eight years has lost some 20 to 22 years of its development,” he told Arab News. “So, I think the context within which this operation had to be mounted was quite unique.

“But I think one can at least speculate that the ability of two sides to this conflict — who lack trust in each other, who are even very skeptical toward international community — to find it within themselves, and ultimately with a very strong sense of support from the public, that this was an operation that was of benefit to every citizen, and therefore required exceptional and unusual measures.

“And the story of how we got here might actually give some hope to those who believe that there is more that can be achieved in the next few months.”

After the remaining oil on board the FSO Safer is removed, the decaying vessel will be towed to a scrapyard, an operation expected to be completed in up to 10 days. (AFP photo/File)

Although the bulk of the oil has been removed from the Safer, the offloading operation is not yet complete; there is a small amount of viscous oil remains on board and the vessel could still break apart.

“The residual oil on the Safer is mixed with sediment and can’t be pumped out at this point,” Gressly said. “It will be removed during the final cleaning.”

The second and final phase of the operation, stripping and cleaning the Safer and preparing it for towing and scrapping, is expected to take between a week and 10 days to complete.

— Ephrem Kossaify contributed to the report from New York City

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Lebanon army arrests 134 Europe-bound migrants




BEIRUT: The Lebanese army arrested 134 migrants near the northern border with Syria on Saturday after foiling their attempt to take a boat to Europe, it said in a statement.
The group of would-be migrants — made up of 130 Syrians and four Lebanese nationals — were taken into custody in the coastal town of Sheikh Zennad, in Akkar province, the army statement said.
The army said it also detained “the mastermind behind the operation” who was a Lebanese national.
In a separate statement, Lebanese armed forces said they had arrested 150 Syrians who had crossed into Lebanon illegally in another part of Akkar province.


Migrants departing from Lebanon head for Europe, with one of the main destinations being Cyprus, only 175 km away.

Lebanon is mired in what the World Bank describes as one of the worst economic crises in modern history.
The economic collapse has turned the country into a launchpad for migrants, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamoring to leave by taking dangerous sea routes.
Authorities say Lebanon currently hosts around two million Syrians, while more than 800,000 are registered with the UN — the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.
Migrants departing from Lebanon head for Europe, with one of the main destinations being Cyprus, only 175 km away.
In September 2022, at least 100 bodies were recovered after a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank off Syria’s coast.
In December 2022, two migrants died and around 200 were rescued when their boat sank off Lebanon’s northern coast.
The arrests were reported as French authorities said six people died after a migrant boat trying to cross the Channel from France capsized early on Saturday, with another two people possibly missing.
Nearly 60 migrants were saved by French and UK rescue boats and brought to French or British shores and search and rescue operations were ongoing, the maritime prefecture said.
Local mayor Franck Dhersin said a vast rescue operation had been launched around 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) as dozens of migrant boats tried to make the crossing at the same time.
“Several of the boats were facing serious difficulties,” he told Reuters. “Near (the coastal town of) Sangatte they unfortunately found dead bodies.”
The Channel between France and Britain is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and currents are strong, making the crossing on small boats dangerous.
People smugglers typically overload rickety dinghies, leaving them barely afloat and at risk of being lashed by the waves as they try to reach British shores.
Anne Thorel, a volunteer who was on one of the rescue boats, described the migrants’ frantic efforts to bail water out of their sinking vessel using their shoes.
“There were too many of them on the (migrant) boat,” she told Reuters by phone as she returned to the shore.
Britain’s coast guard said it sent a lifeboat from Dover to assist with the Channel rescue, along with a coast guard rescue team and ambulance staff.
A UK Border Force vessel and two lifeboats helped rescue all those on board another small boat in the Channel in a separate incident on Saturday, the British coast guard added.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has spent the week making announcements about its efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers, hoping to win support from voters as the ruling Conservative Party trails in opinion polls.
UK government figures show that the number of migrant Channel crossings so far this year stands at nearly 16,000.
In November 2021, 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they tried to cross the Channel.
The accident was the worst accident on record involving migrants in the narrow seaway separating the two countries.
There are more frequent, deadlier disasters in the Mediterranean, where a charity rescue ship rescued 76 migrants on an overloaded wooden boat on Saturday. More than 22,000 people have died or gone missing in its waters since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.=

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