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Dakar Rally to help Saudi tourism push: sports chief

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Qiddiya (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's sports chief said Monday the controversial 2020 Dakar Rally, to be hosted by the country for the first time, will help showcase the austere kingdom's tourism potential.

Organisers of the 12-day marathon through the Arabian desert, which starts on January 5, have admitted they have qualms about bringing one of motor racing's most gruelling adventure rallies to the Gulf kingdom, which has been under fire over human rights abuses.

But Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority, said the race would help spotlight attractions as the ultra-conservative kingdom opens up to international tourists amid a push to boost non-oil revenue.

"With the launch of the Dakar Rally here in the kingdom, the world will see the picturesque nature of our country and its wonderful desert," Prince Abdulaziz told reporters in Qiddiya, close to the capital Riyadh.

"The world will come closer than ever to the people of the hospitable kingdom (that is) looking forward to welcoming the world."

The 2020 Dakar will set off from Jeddah on January 5 and end 7,800 kilometres (4,800 miles) and 12 days later in Qiddiya.

The race, involving more than 550 drivers from around the world, will pass through a host of sites –- from NEOM, a $500 billion futuristic megacity under construction, to the heritage site of Al-Ula and the sand dunes of the vast Empty Quarter desert.

In September, Saudi Arabia began offering tourist visas for the first time.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.

But the conservative country, which forbids alcohol and is notorious for sex segregation, is seen as an unlikely destination for global tourists aside from Muslim pilgrims visiting holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

The Dakar started its history as a rally between Paris and the capital of Senegal in West Africa, then switched to South America when security became a concern. Organisers say it will remain in the Arabian peninsula for at least five years.

Last year's winner Nasser al-Attiyah of Qatar is among the favourites in his Toyota with Carlos Sainz and Stephane Peterhansel, a 13-time winner in bikes and cars, expected to pose a strong challenge in their Minis.

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