Saudi Arabia is preparing to host its first ever America’s Cup event as it reconnects with sailing and the sea
The second preliminary regatta of the 37th America’s Cup is set to take place on the Red Sea in Jeddah from 30 November to 3 December 2023. This will be the only venue outside of Spain to host an America’s Cup regatta during the 37th AC cycle.
The fleet of AC40s will compete out of Jeddah Yacht Marina just a few hundred metres away from the racetrack that has hosted the Saudi Arabia Formula One Grand Prix for the past two seasons.
Samia Bagdady, CEO of the Saudi Sailing Federation, was instrumental in bringing the regatta to Jeddah. Aged 36 and one of the first four women ever to head up a national sports federation in Saudi Arabia, Bagdady embodies the rapidly changing social and business culture of the country. A keen kiteboarder, she spent summers on the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, enjoying the water and learning to sail.
Having grown up in a mix of western and middle eastern cultures, Bagdady is pleased to see the rapid cultural and social change taking place in Saudi Arabia. The progression is visible and evident everywhere by the sheer sense of normality across society. In recent years a vast number of reforms have been introduced to improve the lives of the people. There have been significant judicial reforms to further protect human rights and gender equality. Women’s rights have witnessed a quantum leap.
One of the mandates of Vision 2030, a unique transformative economic and social reform that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world, is increasing the participation of women in the workforce, which has risen from 21 per cent to 33 per cent in its first three years.
‘For anyone who hasn’t been to Saudi Arabia, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised how open, friendly and welcoming the people are to visitors, male and female,’ she says. ‘You’ll not see restrictions but instread a fresh energy of hope and excitement. Women are working as equals in the workplace, running businesses and playing sport. There are so many positives and that’s why we’ve become one of the most exciting countries in world sport.’
More boys and girls, men and women are playing more sport than ever before. And women’s participation is at the heart of the progress. For instance women and girls’ participation in sport is up 150 per cent since 2016. Over 35 Saudi federations now have a women’s national team and there are four female presidents of federations including sailing. In the last 18 months a football premier league has been established and more recently 50,000 girls signed up for the first school football league.
‘This progress is real, transparent and open for all to see in sport, and beyond. And when I see what’s been possible and the momentum behind other sports in the country, its very inspiring when you consider what might be possible in sailing with the right support and structure.’
‘Things have changed significantly in a short few years, more than most people realise. The country is really opening up to itself and to the rest of the world. Whether it’s sailing, football, Formula 1, music festivals, art exhibitions, Saudi is a new home to all, simply because the people are no different to anyone else. They want to live happy, healthy, active lives. Its what the people want and what the government is supporting.
‘So international sporting events are becoming a regular part of the calendar, and the AC40 regatta is a big step towards opening up sailing in the region.’
Bagdady says the regatta will send an important message both externally to the rest of the world and internally to the people of Saudi Arabia that the nation is ready to re-engage with the sea and sailing more specifically. ‘Sailing is a part of our heritage and a very important part of our history,’ she says. ‘Saudi Arabia is on a peninsula with a coast that stretches about 1,760km along the Red Sea and then 560km on the Arabian Gulf. Before combustion engines, sailing was an essential form of transportation as well as being the way pearl divers and fishermen made their living.’
Above and below: the sport of sailing is in its infancy in Saudi Arabia but the wind and sea conditions along much of its coast are ideal for both racing and cruising. Jeddah has a reliable afternoon sea breeze almost every day of the year
There was even a competitive element to sailboat racing in Saudi Arabia that goes back centuries. ‘Jeddah is the closest port to Mecca and the dhows competed against each other for the business of delivering pilgrims as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The dhows were, and are, quick vessels. I’ve even heard that a dhow beat an RC44 a few years ago in a downwind race in Dubai!’
While the local dhows might be more challenged to take on a foiling AC40 in a speed contest, both share a heritage of high technology for their time. Dhows were the cuttingedge boats of their day. ‘Bringing the AC40s to Jeddah is a way to reestablish our lost heritage, to remind people of our lost seamanship skills and hopefully to help re-ignite those skills for the 21st century.’
While Saudi Arabia is embracing change at a phenomenal rate, the kingdom doesn’t want to lose sight of its culture and traditions. Bagdady sees the America’s Cup as the perfect brand to embody that seeming contradiction in terms. ‘It’s a very old sporting event steeped in long tradition, yet part of that tradition is to always pursue the latest opportunities in technology,’ she says. ‘You see where the foiling AC40s and AC75s are taking the sport of sailing today, and it couldn’t be more cutting edge. We want to showcase that technology in Jeddah because it also helps to show that the Kingdom is a fast-developing nation and embracing technological change as quickly as anywhere in the world.’
As for the AC40 event, Bagdady believes it will help establish the Red Sea as one of the most desirable destinations for racing and cruising. ‘We have fantastic sailing conditions, as I know from my own kiteboarding in Jeddah. We have perfect, warmweather sailing conditions all year round with a very reliable sea breeze almost every afternoon. For those who want to explore further afield in the region, our coastline is beautiful and relatively undeveloped, although marina developments have started to really take off in the past few years.’
The host venue for the event, Jeddah Yacht Club and Marina, The host marina for the event, provides 95 berths for yachts and boats from 10 metres up to 120 metres, and has already proven itself as the perfect operating base for luxury berthing during the Formula One events of the past two years.
As former CEO of Oman Sail, David Graham is well acquainted with the region and the challenges of establishing the sport of sailing from scratch. Now CEO of World Sailing, Graham is keen to support the Saudi Sailing Federation, a World Sailing Member National Authority. ‘Our objective is to grow our great sport globally,’ he says. ‘Saudi Arabia is ready and willing to embrace sailing and develop the sport through their sailing federation. They have a number of sailing events on the horizon, the pinnacle of which will be the 37th America's Cup Second Preliminary Regatta from 30 November, which we support and look forward to the exciting prospect of the AC40s being raced in Jeddah.’
Head of Emirates Team New Zealand, Grant Dalton believes the competition in Jeddah will be red hot. ‘This will be the last significant act of 2023,’ says Dalton. ‘It may not seem like much but no team will want to be going into 2024, the year of the America’s Cup, at the bottom of the leaderboard or having shown vulnerability in their sailing team less than a year out from the start of the America’s Cup. It will be pressure no one needs, especially as the next time the teams race each other will be just prior to the Challenger Selection Series, in the final preliminary regatta in Barcelona raced in the AC75s.’
Hassan Kabbani, chairman of the Saudi Sailing Federation, says: ‘We welcome the America's Cup organisation and sailors from around the world to Saudi Arabia and to Jeddah. It is an honour to be selected to host an America's Cup Preliminary Regatta and to be able to showcase to the sailing community the wonderful conditions we have. I can assure everyone of a warm welcome.
‘The America's Cup Preliminary Regatta will help us to accelerate the growth of sailing in Saudi Arabia. We are using the event to kick-start a number of new initiatives including a Discover Sailing programme to encourage people on to the water, and a Performance Pathway for talented sailors to train to compete at the top level.’
The ability to inspire the Saudi people would be the greatest possible legacy for the regatta, according to Bagdady. ‘Sailing is in its infancy at the moment, but the potential is huge, with nine million people living on the Red Sea coast and fantastic sailing conditions all year round. I think when people see what these AC40s can do, it will change their perception of sailing.
‘If it inspires people, young or old, female or male, to get involved in one of our grassroots programmes, that would be an incredibly rewarding legacy. We want to bring the joy and excitement of sailing to Saudis of all ages, young and old, and one day see an Olympic, Ocean Race or America’s Cup champion representing our country.’
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