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Damar Hamlin discharged after spending more than a week hospitalized due to a cardiac arrest | CNN

CNN  — 

Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin has been discharged from a Buffalo medical center, his club said Wednesday, after more than a week of hospitalization due to a cardiac arrest he suffered during a “Monday Night Football” game this month.

The 24-year-old Bills safety had been showing signs of accelerated improvement in the days leading up to his release from Buffalo General Medical Center in New York, hospital officials had said.

“We have completed a series of tests and evaluations, and in consultation with the team physicians, we are confident that Damar can be safely discharged to continue his rehabilitation at home and with the Bills,” a physician leading Hamlin’s care in Buffalo, Dr. Jamie Nadler, said in a statement the Bills released Wednesday on Twitter.

Hamlin initially was hospitalized in Cincinnati when his heart suddenly stopped after a tackle during a game against the host Cincinnati Bengals on January 2, but was transferred to the Buffalo facility Monday after doctors determined his critical condition had improved enough for the move.

Doctors at the Buffalo hospital were trying to determine why Hamlin suffered the cardiac arrest, Kaleida Health, the group of hospitals that includes the Buffalo medical center, said before his discharge. That included whether pre-existing conditions played a role in the event, which shocked many around the country and prompted a huge outpouring of support for the second-year NFL player.

On Tuesday, Hamlin went through “a comprehensive medical evaluation as well as a series of cardiac, neurological and vascular testing,” the Bills said on Twitter.

No cause of Hamlin’s cardiac arrest has been publicly announced.

“Special thank-you to Buffalo General it’s been nothing but love since arrival! Keep me in y’all prayers please!” Hamlin tweeted Tuesday.

It will be up to Hamlin to decide when he will be around the team again while recovering, Bills coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday.

“Grateful first and foremost that he is home with his parents and his brother, which is great,” McDermott told reporters Wednesday, as the Bills prepared to host the Miami Dolphins for a playoff game Sunday. No timetable for Hamlin’s return to professional football has been announced.

“We’ll leave (when he’ll be around the team) up to him. His health is first and foremost in our mind as far as his situation goes and when he feels ready, we will welcome him back,” McDermott said.

While in critical condition in Cincinnati, Hamlin was sedated and on a ventilator for days. On Friday morning the breathing tube was removed, and Hamlin began walking with some help by that afternoon, his doctors said Monday.

The health care team focused on stabilizing Hamlin and upgraded his condition Monday because his organ systems were stable and he no longer needed intensive nursing or respiratory therapy, doctors said.

“He’s certainly on what we consider a very normal to even accelerated trajectory from the life-threatening event that he underwent,” Dr. Timothy Pritts, chief of surgery at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, said earlier this week. “He’s making great progress.”

Normal recovery from a cardiac arrest can be measured in weeks to months, Pritts said Monday. Hamlin had been beating that timeline at each stage and is neurologically intact.

Swift response was key to saving Hamlin

When Hamlin collapsed seconds after an open-field tackle against a Bengals wide receiver, medical personnel rushed onto the field and administered CPR quickly – which helped save his life.

Hamlin’s heart had stopped, and medical responders revived it twice before putting him into an ambulance and taking him to the hospital. The immediate actions of medical personnel were vital to “not just saving his life, but his neurological function,” said Pritts.

The horrifying scene of Hamlin suddenly falling on his back after standing up following the tackle unsettled his teammates, the other players and millions of watching fans.

The game was initially postponed and later cancelled by the NFL – a decision several former football players said was a sign of a shift in prioritizing players’ mental and physical health.

Now, the Bills organization is encouraging people to learn the critical, life-saving skill of administering CPR.

The team has pledged support for resources including CPR certifications, automated external defibrillator units and guidance for developing cardiac emergency response plans within the Buffalo community, according to the statement. “We encourage all our fans to continue showing your support and take the next step by obtaining CPR certification,” the Bills said.

CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.

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Lovie Smith said the NFL had ‘a problem’ about Black coaches. A year later he was fired and the league is being criticized yet again about its lack of diversity | CNN

CNN  — 

When Lovie Smith was hired by the Houston Texans in February 2022 as the team’s new head coach, he said the NFL had “a problem” with hiring Black coaches and diversity.

“I realize the amount of Black head coaches there are in the National Football League,” Smith told reporters just under a year ago.

“There’s Mike Tomlin and I think there’s me, I don’t know of many more. So there’s a problem, and it’s obvious for us. And after there’s a problem, what are you going to do about it?”

Smith was fired Monday at the end of his one and only season at the helm of the Texans, finishing with a record of 3-13-1.

Smith is the second Black coach in two years to be relieved of his duties by the Texans, which fired David Culley at the end of the 2021 season.

Smith’s time in charge wasn’t full of wins and high points – though his parting gift to the organization was a last-minute Hail Mary victory over the Indianapolis Colts, which saw them relinquish the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft to the Chicago Bears. But his Texans team showed togetherness and competence, traits often desired by outfits undergoing a rebuild.

Smith talks with players during practice.

Houston general manager Nick Caserio said Smith’s firing was the best decision for the team right now.

“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to thank Lovie Smith for everything he has contributed to our team over the last two seasons as a coach and a leader,” Caserio said in a statement.

“I’m constantly evaluating our football operation and believe this is the best decision for us at this time. It is my responsibility to build a comprehensive and competitive program that can sustain success over a long period of time. We aren’t there right now, however, with the support of the McNair family and the resources available to us, I’m confident in the direction of our football program moving forward.”

But the firing of the 64-year-old coach, the Texans organization as a whole, and the measures implemented by the league to promote diversity have been heavily criticized by former players and TV pundits.

“The Houston Texans have fired Lovie Smith after 1 year. Using 2 Black Head Coaches to tank and then firing them after 1 year shouldn’t sit right with anyone,” former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III tweeted Sunday, when news of Smith’s firing broke.

On ESPN, Stephen A. Smith and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin also condemned the decision. Smith called the Texans organization an “atrocity.”

“They are an embarrassment. And as far as I’m concerned, if you’re an African American, and you aspire to be a head coach in the National Football League, there are 31 teams you should hope for. You should hope beyond God that the Houston Texans never call you,” Smith said.

Irvin said Black coaches are being used as “scapegoats” by the Texans.

“It’s a mess in Houston and they bring these guys in and they use them as scapegoats. And this is what African American coaches have been yelling about for a while and it’s blatant, right in our face,” he said.

When CNN contacted the Texans for comment, the team highlighted the moment at Monday’s news conference when Caserio was asked why any Black coach would consider working for the team, and his response was that individual candidates would have to make their own choices.

Smith on the sidelines during a game against the Indianapolis Colts.

“In the end it’s not about race. It’s about finding quality coaches,” the general manager said. “There’s a lot of quality coaches. David (Culley) is a quality coach. Lovie (Smith) is a quality coach.

“In the end, each coach has their own beliefs. Each coach has their own philosophy. Each coach has their comfort level about what we’re doing. That’s all I can do is just be honest and forthright, which I’ve done from the day that I took this job, and I’m going to continue to do that and try to find a coach that we feel makes the most sense for this organization. That’s the simplest way I can answer it, and that’s my commitment.

“That’s what I’m hired to do, and that’s what I’m in the position to do. At some point, if somebody feels that that’s not the right decision for this organization, then I have to respect that, and I have to accept it.”

CNN has reached out to Lovie Smith for comment.

Increasing the diversity in coaching ranks

At the beginning of the 2022 season, reported Smith was one one of just six minority head coaches in the NFL, a low number in a league where nearly 70% of the players are Black.

Since Art Shell was hired by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989 as the first Black head coach in modern history, there have been 191 people hired as head coaches, but just 24 have been Black.

However, the NFL has taken steps to increase diversity in the coaching ranks.

Notably, in 2003, the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule to improve hiring practices in a bid to “increase the number of minorities hired in head coach, general manager, and executive positions.”

But the Rooney Rule hasn’t been an unqualified success.

In 2003, the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 for not interviewing any minority coaches before hiring Steve Mariucci as their new head coach.

In response to criticism, the NFL announced it was setting up a diversity advisory committee of outside experts to review its hiring practices last March. Teams would also be required to hire minority coaches as offensive assistants.

Despite changes to the rule being implemented in recent years to strengthen it, a 2022 lawsuit alleges that some teams have implemented “sham” interviews to fulfill the league’s diversity requirements.

Last February, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a federal civil lawsuit against the NFL, the New York Giants, the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins organizations alleging racial discrimination.

Flores looks on during his time as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins during a game against the New York Jets.

Flores, who is Black, said in his lawsuit that the Giants interviewed him for their vacant head coaching job under disingenuous circumstances.

Two months after submitting the initial lawsuit, Flores added the Texans to it, alleging the organization declined to hire him this offseason as head coach “due to his decision to file this action and speak publicly about systemic discrimination in the NFL.”

In response to the lawsuit, the Texans said their “search for our head coach was very thorough and inclusive.”

The NFL called Flores’ allegations meritless.

“The NFL and our clubs are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations,” the league said in response to the lawsuit.

“Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit.”

But 12 months after firing their last Black head coach, the Texans have fired another one.

“How do you hire two African Americans, leave them one year and then get rid them?” questioned NFL Hall of Famer Irvin.

“You know the mess that Houston is,” Irvin added. “We get the worst jobs and we don’t get the opportunity to fix the worst jobs, just like this.

“I don’t know any great White coach that would take the (Texans) job unless you give them some guarantees. ‘You’re going to have to guarantee me four years to turn this place around.’ But the African American coaches can’t come in with that power because Lovie wouldn’t have got another job.

“This was his last chance to get back into the NFL and you have to take what’s on the table to try to change that.”

Irvin speaks on media row ahead of Super Bowl LVI on February 10, 2022 in Los Angeles.

The Texans are now searching for a new head coach under general manager Caserio. The new appointment will be Caserio’s third coach in the role: It is almost unprecedented for a general manager to get the opportunity to hire a third head coach with the same team.

Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair said he would take on a more active role in the hiring process. The next head coach will be the organization’s fourth in three years.

According to the NFL, the Texans have requested to speak to five candidates already about filling Smith’s position, a list that includes two Black coaches.

After Smith was hired in March 2021, McNair said: “I’ve never seen a more thorough, inclusive, and in-depth process than what Nick (Caserio) just went through with our coaching search.”

At that introductory news conference, Smith spoke candidly about how to bring greater diversity to the NFL coaching ranks.

“People in positions of authority throughout – head coaches, general managers – you’ve got to be deliberate about trying to get more Black athletes in some of the quality control positions just throughout your program. If you get that, they can move up, that’s one way to get more.”

Smith continued: “It’s not just an interview, if you’re interviewing a Black guy. It’s about having a whole lot of guys to choose from that look like me. And it’s just not about talk. You look at my staff, that’s what I believe in. And letting those guys show you who they are. That’s how we can increase it, then it’s left up to people to choose. We all have an opportunity to choose, and that’s how I think we’ll get it done.”

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How pioneering yacht Maiden overcame ‘the real last bastion of male dominance’ and empowered women around the world | CNN

CNN  — 

More than three decades since its pioneering, round-the-world voyage, the Maiden racing yacht is again sailing the high seas – and changing the lives of young women in the process.

Skippered by British sailor Tracy Edwards, Maiden became the first all-female crew to sail around the world in 1990 – a landmark moment for a sport that was slow to welcome women into the fold.

“It’s hard to remember that people were pretty aggressive about not wanting us to race around the world,” Edwards tells CNN Sport’s Don Riddell. “It was the real last bastion of male dominance in a sport.”

The crew ended up winning two of the six legs of the Whitbread Round the World Race – now known as the Volvo Ocean Race – and placed second overall in its class, defying the sexist attitudes that pervaded sailing at the time.

“One of the headlines, which has to be my favorite, was: ‘Maiden is just a tin full of tarts,’” says Edwards, adding that the same journalist later referred to the crew as “a tin full of smart, fast tarts.”

Edwards (front and center) celebrates onboard Maiden during the 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World Race.

Fast forward 33 years ago and Maiden continues to represent “the empowerment of women, the strength of women, and what women are capable of,” according to Edwards.

Having been restored to its former glory, the yacht has been touring around the world since 2018, recently completing a journey from Dakar, Senegal, to Cape Town, South Africa.

The aim of the tour is to raise funds and awareness for girls’ education, trying – particularly in the developing world – to keep them in education until they are 18.

Making Maiden seaworthy once more was no easy feat. In 2014, Edwards was told that the vessel had fallen into disrepair and was rotting away in the Seychelles.

That prompted the original crew from the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race to start a fundraiser. Along with support from Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, they were able to bring Maiden back to the UK and begin a restoration project.

“The Maiden Factor” – the name given to the not-for-profit organization – forms part of the legacy of the original crew.

Between 2021 and 2024, Maiden intends to sail 90,000 nautical miles, visiting 60 destinations in more than 40 different countries.

Jordan's Princess Haya bint al-Hussein (center) meets Edwards (center left) on the newly-refurbished Maiden in London on September 5, 2018.

“I’m seeing people getting to dream more and understanding that we are limitless as human beings,” says Lungi Mchunu, a member of the current Maiden crew.

“I just want them to be able to dream and know that they can try and do anything. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine; you keep moving, you find something that’s more suited for you.”

A South African native, Mchunu used to work as a banker and was terrified of the sea before she discovered sailing in 2017. Since then, she has not only conquered her fear, but has also become the first African woman to sail to the Arctic.

“For some odd reason, I feel at home even when the waves are like five or eight meters,” says Mchunu.

“I feel the most comfortable at sea … Even when I was rescued in the Arctic, it was not scary. I was just okay, I guess … I’m getting to know a side of myself that I never knew existed.”

Mchunu’s ultimate dream is to sail solo around the world, and Maiden – as it has with so many other women before – is empowering her to achieve that goal.

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From feminist pioneers to putting pros, the historic journey of the world’s oldest ladies golf club | CNN

CNN  — 

Who would you back to sink a putt to save your life? Tiger Woods? Jack Nicklaus? Ben Crenshaw?

There is a plethora of debatable options, but it is unlikely many would look to a group of women in Fife, Scotland, with no professional golfing experience, many of whom are far more mature than the average Tour player.

Yet perhaps they should, because anyone putting their life in the hands of the St. Andrews Ladies Putting Club would be entrusting it to an organization with over 150 years of short game experience.

Established in 1867, the group is the oldest ladies golf club in the world, a title owed to some perseverant, golf-loving women – and some disgruntled men.

When the daughters of members of the St. Andrews Royal & Ancient (R&A) Club – widely regarded as the historic home of the game – decided they wanted to play golf, it was not a conventional activity for women. Croquet and archery were the traditional choices among the limited options available.

When the women ventured onto the caddy’s putting course, which was used by those manning the members’ golf bags between rounds, the caddies wanted them gone almost immediately.

“They didn’t like it at all, and I don’t think the members liked it very much either,” club archivist Eve Soulsby told CNN’s The Jazzy Golfer.

Putting things right

But the caddies had a problem: As employees of the club, they couldn’t complain to the members. A compromise quickly emerged – to give the women a piece of land next to the iconic Swilcan Bridge that they could use as a nine-hole putting course.

It was a rough area, filled with rabbit holes, divots and sand, but it was a start. One month later, 22 women competed at the St. Andrews Ladies Golf Club’s inaugural tournament.

The word quickly spread. By the late 1880s, the membership had grown to 600, including male associate members. Today, there is an ever-growing waiting list to join the 140-strong membership, a number kept low to ensure tournaments run smoothly.

Members of the St. Andrews Ladies Golf Club gather for a picture, taken in the late 19th century.

Soon after, Old Tom Morris, the course’s resident player, and greenkeeper, often referred to as the “founding father of golf,” decided it would be a good idea for the ladies to visit the nearby Himalaya section of the course, so named because of its hilly topography.

Morris prepared the area for the club before retiring in 1895, when he was made an honorary member.

Soulsby believes the club’s early members played a pivotal role in gaining more independence for the women of St. Andrews towards the turn of the century, citing the creation of the women’s course, which – alongside the Himalaya’s putting course – remains playable to this day.

Income raised from visitors to the putting course is donated to local charities, with an exception made last year to give funds to Ukrainian organizations.

Officially named The Jubilee Course and opened in 1897, the fact that the women’s designated 18 holes was coined “The Duffers Course” reflected commonly held attitudes towards women during the period. “We pretend that didn’t happen,” Soulsby added.

Royal roots

Among those carrying the torch for those early pioneers today is Sylvia Dunne, the club’s current president.

A member since 2011, Dunne helps organize the group’s weekly tournaments; a showpiece two-round event on Wednesday afternoons and a one-round competition on Thursday morning for the so-called “oldies” who may struggle to manage multiple rounds.

“It’s the camaraderie and everything too, because if you get older and you can’t play golf, you could be just stuck at home doing nothing all day, and this is really a very social club,” she said.

“The best part is the afterwards because they have coffee and biscuits and a blither.”

Members of the St Andrews Ladies Putting Club before a match against members of the St Andrews Links in 2018.

Members who won tournaments in the early 20th century may have been lucky enough to take home a royal prize. The club’s first regal donation came from Prince Leopold, youngest son of Queen Victoria, and other trophies later followed from Edward VIII and King George VI.

At one time, R&A captains also donated trophies, but now they face off against the Ladies Putting Club in an annual 18 vs 18 putting competition.

Dunne is one of the most prolific putters at the club, sweeping six trophies in a single season during her best year. However, she admits the putting green can be a cruel mistress, even for her.

“One day recently I was so exasperated,” she said. “We have a prize at the end of the season for the most holes in one – so I suggested, isn’t it time we had a prize for the most near misses?

“There is a lot of skill involved, but there’s also a lot of luck. Some days the ball rolls for you and other days it will not drop in the hole.”

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Jon Rahm produces stunning comeback to win Tournament of Champions in Hawaii | CNN

CNN  — 

Spanish golfer Jon Rahm won his third PGA Tour title in six starts with a stunning comeback to overturn a seven-shot deficit at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

The world No. 5 even bogeyed Sunday’s first hole but went on a remarkable run to finish the final round with a 10-under-par 63.

Rahm ended the tournament 27-under-par to beat two-time major winner Collin Morikawa by two shots.

Morikawa went into Sunday’s final round with a six-shot lead over the chasing pack, but three bogeys on the back nine gave him a one-under-par 72 and allowed Rahm to claw back the deficit.

“I needed to play good and he needed to make a couple mistakes,” Rahm said, per the BBC.

“If you told me at the beginning of the round after that bogey I was going to do what I did, I don’t know if I would have believed you.”

It was the eighth PGA Tour win of Rahm’s career and the 28-year-old will go down as the winner of the Tour’s first “designated” event with an elevated purse, introduced in a bid to compete with LIV Golf’s rise.

It is the first of 17 events this season – including the four majors – that will have the designated event tag, with a total purse of $15 million and Rahm earning $2.7 million for his victory.

Most of the remaining designated tournaments will have total purses of at least $20 million, with the PLAYERS Championship boasting an eye-watering $25 million purse.

While Sunday proved to be a day of delight for Rahm, Morikawa was left disappointed and frustrated with his final round performance, despite scooping up $1.5 million for his second-place finish.

“You work so hard and you give yourself these opportunities,” 2021 Open winner Morikawa said, per the BBC.

“I just made three poor swings, really, at the wrong times. It’s never a good time to put a poor swing on it, but sometimes, it works out and these never worked out.

“I don’t know what I’m going to learn from this week, but it just didn’t seem like it was that far off. It really wasn’t. Yeah, it sucks.”

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Why Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia means so much for the Gulf monarchy’s sporting ambitions | CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

It’s a partnership that’s been hailed as “history in the making.”

One of the world’s most famous soccer stars landed in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday, where Cristiano Ronaldo was received in an extravagant ceremony, with excited children sporting his new club’s yellow and blue jerseys.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s success in luring the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on a two-year contract with the kingdom’s Al Nassr FC is the Gulf monarchy’s latest step in realizing its sporting ambitions – seemingly at any cost.

According to Saudi state-owned media, Ronaldo will earn an estimated $200 million a year with Al Nassr, making him the world’s highest-paid soccer player.

Shortly after the 37-year-old’s signing with Al Nassr, the club’s Instagram page gained over 5.3 million new followers. Its official website was inaccessible after exceeding its bandwidth limit due to the sudden surge in traffic, and the hashtag #HalaRonaldo – Hello, Ronaldo in Arabic – was trending for days across the Middle East on Twitter.

Analysts say that his recruitment in Saudi Arabia is part of a wider effort by the kingdom to diversify its sources of revenue and become a serious player in the international sporting scene.

It is also seen as a move by the kingdom to shore up its image after it was tarnished by the 2018 dismemberment and killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents, and a devastating war it started in Yemen in 2015.

Critics have decried the kingdom for “sportswashing,” an attempt to burnish one’s reputation through sport.

“I think Saudi Arabia has recognized a couple of years ago that to be a powerful nation internationally, you cannot just rely on hard power,” Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, told CNN.

“You also need to invest in soft power, and the case of Qatar shows that this can work pretty well,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is following in the Qatari approach with sport, but with a delay of around 25 years.

Neighboring Qatar has also faced immense criticism since it won the bid to hosting last year’s FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Despite the smaller Gulf state facing similar accusations of “sportswashing,” the tournament has largely been viewed as a success, not least in exposing the world to a different view of the Middle East, thanks in part to Morocco’s success in reaching the semifinals and Saudi Arabia beating eventual World Cup champion Argentina in their opening group game.

Gulf nations engage in fierce competition to become the region’s premier entertainment and sporting hubs. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, in close proximity to each other, each have their own Formula One racing event. But their competition hasn’t been confined to the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also bought trophy European soccer teams.

Riyadh is playing catchup with neighbors who have long realized the importance of investing in sports, said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, especially as its main source of income – oil – is being gradually shunned.

“This is part of an ongoing attempt to create more resilient economies that are more broadly based upon industries other than those that are derived from oil and gas,” Chadwick told CNN.

Ronaldo’s new club Al Nassr is backed by Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a subsidiary of the kingdom’s wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has played a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s diversification plans.

“It is also a sign of interconnectedness, of globalization and of opening up to the rest of the world,” said Georgetown University’s Reiche.

The move is part of “several recent high profile moves in the sports world, including hosting the Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua world heavywight boxing championship bout in 2019, and launching the LIV Golf championship,” said Omar Al-Ubaydli, director of research at the Bahrain-based Derasat think tank. “It is a significant piece of a large puzzle that represents their economic restructuring.”

The kingdom has been on a path to not only diversify its economy, but also shift its image amid a barrage of criticism over its human rights record and treatment of women. Saudi Arabia is today hosting everything from desert raves to teaming up with renowned soccer players. Argentina’s Lionel Messi last year signed a lucrative promotional deal with the kingdom.

Hailed as the world’s greatest player, 35-year-old Messi ended this year’s World Cup tournament in Qatar with his team’s win over France, making his ambassadorship of even greater value to the kingdom.

The acquisition of such key global figures will also help combat the monarchy’s decades-long reputation of being “secretive” and “ultra-conservative,” James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on soccer in the Middle East, told CNN’s Eleni Giokos on Wednesday.

Al-Ubaydli said that the kingdom wants to use high profile international sports “as a vehicle for advertising to the world its openness.”

Saudi Arabia bought the English Premier league club Newcastle United in 2021 through a three-party consortium, with PIF being the largest stakeholder. The move proved controversial, as Amnesty International and other human rights defenders worried it would overshadow the kingdom’s human rights violations.

Ronaldo’s work with Saudi Arabia is already being criticized by rights groups who are urging the soccer player to “draw attention to human rights issues” in Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has an image problem,” especially since Khashoggi’s killing, says Reiche. But the kingdom’s recent investments in sports and entertainment are “not about sportswashing but about developing the country, social change and opening up to the world.”

Saudi Arabia is reportedly weighing a 2030 World Cup bid with Egypt and Greece, but the kingdom’s tourism ministry noted in November that it has not yet submitted an official bid. Chadwick believes that Ronaldo’s deal with Al Nassr, however, may help boost the kingdom’s bid should it choose it pursue it.

Another way Saudi Arabia may benefit from Ronaldo’s acquisition is that it will be able to improve commercial performance, says Chadwick, especially if this collaboration attracts further international talent.

“It is important to see Ronaldo not just as a geopolitical instrument,” said Chadwick, “There is still a commercial component to him and to the purpose he is expected to serve in Saudi Arabia.”

What Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia shows is that the kingdom aspires “to be seen as being the best” and that it wants to be perceived as a “contender and a legitimate member of the international football community,” said Chadwick.

The digest

UAE FM meets Syria’s Assad in Damascus in further sign of thawing ties

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus on Wednesday in the latest sign of thawing relations between Assad and the Gulf state. The meeting addressed developments in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to UAE state news agency WAM.

  • Background: It was Abdullah bin Zayed’s first visit since a November 2021 meeting with Assad that led to the resumption of relations. Months later, in March 2022, Assad visited the UAE, his first visit to an Arab state since the start of Syria’s civil war.
  • Why it matters: A number of Assad’s former foes have been trying to mend fences with his regime. Last week, talks between the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers were held in Moscow in the highest-level encounter reported between the estranged sides since the war in Syria began. The regional rapprochement is yet to improve the lives of average Syrians. Syria is still under Western sanctions.

Turkish President Erdogan says he could meet with Assad

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday that he could meet the Syrian leader “to establish peace.”

  • Background: Erdogan’s comments came after the Moscow talks between the two nations’ defense ministers and intelligence chiefs. “Following this meeting… we will bring our foreign ministers together. And after that, as leaders, we will come together,” Erdogan said on Thursday.
  • Why it matters: The meeting would mark a dramatic shift in Turkey’s decade-long stance on Syria, where Ankara was the prime supporter of political and armed factions fighting to topple Assad. The Turkish military maintains a presence across the Syrian border and within northern Syria, where it backs Syrian opposition forces. Erdogan has also pledged to launch yet another incursion into northern Syria, aiming at creating a 30-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” that would be emptied of Kurdish fighters.

Iran shuts down French cultural center over Charlie Hebdo’s Khamenei cartoons

Iran announced on Thursday it had ended the activities of a Tehran-based French research institute, in reaction to cartoons mocking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fellow Shia Muslim clerics published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week.

  • Background: Iran summoned the French ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday to protest cartoons published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. More than 30 cartoons poking fun at Iran’s supreme leader were published by the magazine on Wednesday, in a show of support for the Iranian people who have been protesting the Islamic Republic’s government and its policies.
  • Why it matters: French-Iranian relations have deteriorated significantly since protests broke out in Iran late last year. Paris has publicly supported the protests and spoken out against Iran’s response to them. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna criticized Iran’s freedom of press and judicial independence on Thursday, saying “press freedom exists, contrary to what is going on in Iran and… it is exercised under the supervision of a judge in an independent judiciary – and there too it’s something that Iran knows little of.”

Around the region

Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performing onstage at the Olympia, in Paris on November 14, 1967.

The prized legacy of iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum re-emerged this year when Rolling Stone magazine featured her in its “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Ranking 61st, Umm Kulthum was the only Arab artist to make it to the list, with the magazine saying that she “has no real equivalent among singers in the West.”

Born in a small village northeast of the Egyptian capital Cairo, Umm Kulthum rose to unmatched fame as she came to represent “the soul of the pan-Arab world,” the music magazine said.

“Her potent contralto, which could blur gender in its lower register, conveyed breathtaking emotional range in complex songs that, across theme and wildly-ornamented variations, could easily last an hour, as she worked crowds like a fiery preacher,” it wrote.

Nicknamed “the lady of Arab singing,” her music featured both classical Arabic poetry as well as colloquial songs still adored by younger generations. Her most famous pieces include “Inta Uumri” (you are my life), “Alf Leila Weileila” (a thousand and one nights), “Amal Hayati” (hope of my life) and “Daret al-Ayyam” (the days have come around). Some of her songs have been remixed to modern beats that have made their way to Middle Eastern nightclubs.

The singer remains an unmatched voice across the Arab World and her music can still be heard in many traditional coffee shops in Old Cairo’s neighborhoods and other parts of the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 brought millions of mourners to the streets of Cairo.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

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