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Saudi Arabia’s State-Sponsored Gaming Booth Is Upsetting Queer PAX East Attendees

Qiddiya Gaming is a project of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia and is part of a multibillion dollar initiative to bring esports to the country.

PAX East nav screenshot

This post originally appeared on March 11 on Rascal, "a tabletop roleplaying game and culture outlet striving to sustainably publish voicey journalism that is compelling, deeply-reported, and fearlessly honest." Check them out!

Qiddiya Gaming has been keeping quiet about attending PAX East. There’s no press release on their press room, no posts on their social media, and nothing on their website about their attendance. But Qiddiya has appeared, quietly, on the PAX East homepage as one of their Featured Exhibitors, next to companies like Pokemon, Larian Studios, and Final Fantasy XIV. 

What’s not mentioned on the PAX East site or on the vendor listing is that Qiddiya Gaming is one of Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored programs. It’s been widely reported (from outlets like The GuardianReuters, and the Associated Press) that Saudi Arabia is engaging in "sportswashing"—where the government, through investments in sports and games, hopes to "wash over" its less savory press... like human rights abuses. Qiddiya City, the multibillion dollar sportsplex outside of Riyadh, can be seen as another attempt by the authoritarian regime to distract from its horrendous record. Representatives of the Saudi government deny these accusations.

Despite being a Featured Exhibitor, it’s likely that Qiddiya Gaming was a late addition to the program. According to Brian Liberge, part of the leadership team for Games on Demand, the large booth was previously marked by only a number, and it’s only been a few days since their logo popped up on the PAX East Nav App.

After members of the tabletop community realized that Qiddiya Gaming would be attending PAX East, Games on Demand—an independent outfit that has run tabletop games at PAX conventions for over a decade—responded with a demand that ReedPOP (the convention production company behind PAX, Emerald City Comic Con, Star Wars Celebration, and New York Comic Con, among others) and PAX East specifically reconsider their association with Qiddiya.

"We have seen the PAX convention continuously work to make every gamer who comes to the table with a sincere desire to share their joy feel like a welcomed member of the community.” The statement, posted on March 8, reads. “The inclusion of Qiddiya goes against those efforts. One of the six rules of PAX is “Don’t harass anyone” and this group has gone far beyond breaking that rule."

Rascal reached out to PAX East on Friday March 8 and has not heard back. We will update this article if we receive a response. 

It bears explicitly stating: Qiddiya Gaming is very likely exclusively state funded by the authoritarian government of Saudi Arabia, via their Public Investment Fund, which is their Sovereign Wealth Fund. The PIF of Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in the larger Qiddiya City, a new sportsplex/theme park a few miles to the south west of the capital city of Riyadh. All of the Qiddiya City projects, including esports initiatives, are described as part of the government’s Vision 2030 plan. 

Qiddiya Gaming’s funder, the PIF, has consistently come under intense criticism for its ties to human rights abuses, per the Human Rights Watch. According to The Guardian, during the period when the PIF was investing in PGA, the US Congress subpoenaed the 700 billion dollar PIF to get information about its investments because the Saudi government did not voluntarily comply with congressional requests for transparency. From the same article, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said “The PIF has been implicated in some of Saudi Arabia’s most abhorrent atrocities.” Another report from The Guardian reveals that the PIF has deployed roughly six billion dollars to influence sports like soccer, tennis, and golf across the globe. 

Rascal has emailed Qiddiya Gaming to ask about their presence at PAX East. We will update this article if we receive a response.

Credit: Qiddiya

To give a sense of the scale of Qiddiya as a project, one only has to look at its Vision 2030 page, which states that the Kingdom has already invested 2 billion in Qiddiya City. The investors listed on the site include eight Saudi Government agencies and funds and the Crown Prince/Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia is the chairman of the board of directors. Their site states they are aiming to have a city of over 600,000 residents and receive “millions” of tourists every year. They have plans for a golf club, Six Flags, and a waterpark, and it will host the athletes for the 2034 Asian Games. In addition, one of the crown jewels of Qiddiya City will be a gaming and esports neighborhood, which will house an esports stadium that will seat over 5,000 people. 

So, why does this matter to PAX East? While a gaming convention in Boston is surely small potatoes to Saudi Arabia, the very presence of Qiddiya at this convention shows how seriously the nation is taking its mission to appeal to international audiences. This is kind of like when Raytheon sponsored WorldCon. We’ll totally forget about all those bombs it makes if it gives enough money to a nerdy convention. 

According to the Human Rights Watch article linked above, “the PIF has invested significantly in sportswashing, an effort to rebrand the country and distract from serious human rights abuses by hosting or sponsoring events that celebrate human achievement, like major sporting events.” It goes on to further state that the PIF, as a Sovereign Wealth Fund, is not unusual, but because of Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian regime (where there are no elections and no political parties), “ruling elites in abusive governments have used SWFs to accumulate vast pools of capital, consolidate power, facilitate abuse, launder their images, and extend their reach abroad.”

A massive showcase for Qiddiya Gaming at one of the biggest gaming events in the United States certainly sounds like it could be hoping gamers ignore, gloss over, or simply don’t care about Saudi Arabia’s extensive human rights abuses and oppressive government. Yes, at this point, it’s difficult to avoid projects and groups that have been funded by Saudi Arabia, but Qiddiya isn’t just partially funded by the PIF—it’s literally a government-produced, funded, and supported public service.

Pax East nav screenshot

Games on Demand states that it’s inappropriate for PAX East to host this company, especially when the convention has been working hard to develop a safer space for diverse gamers, including queer and trans people. When PAX East has a PAX Together lounge dedicated to gamers of diverse backgrounds and sexualities, hosting a PIF-sponsored gaming endeavor a few feet away is not exactly fostering an environment of inclusion and acceptance. 

While PAX East is primarily a video game convention, it does have significant tabletop presence, and a hugely popular Games on Demand room for players who want to pick up a TTRPG on the fly. “As a queer trans game designer and somewhat-long time volunteer for Games on Demand at PAX East and PAX Unplugged, the PAX conventions have always felt like a relatively safe place to be a queer human because there were a lot of outward displays that they valued queer folks comfort over bigots,” Natalie Pudim, an organizer for Games on Demand, said to Rascal over email. “By accepting Qiddiya's sponsorship it seems that safety for queer and trans people is only a value of PAX until it gets in the way of making money.”

The Human Dignity Trust reports that “Saudi Arabia criminalises same-sex sexual activity between men and between women. The gender expression of trans people is also criminalised. Sentences include a maximum penalty of death. There is evidence of the law being enforced in recent years, and LGBT people are regularly subjected to discrimination and violence.” The International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Organization (ILGA) published a report on State-Sponsored Homophobia in 2020 that stated that Saudia Arabia considered the death penalty an appropriate response to consensual homosexual acts.

“PAX presents itself as a safe, inclusive space. While I've usually felt that to be the case at East and Unplugged, PAX providing a platform to an infamously cruel organization makes me reconsider,” said Zoe Johnson, a volunteer for the Games on Demand at PAX East. 

Credit: PAX East

“The core values of the current Saudi Arabian government starkly oppose the values of Games on Demand.” Games on Demand wrote in their statement. “We believe that gaming should be a welcoming community for all who come to the table to experience joy, and carry no ill intent towards their fellow players.” Because of the closeness of the gaming convention, the group has decided that it will remain in attendance. 

Drawing from the oft-reported history of Saudi Arabia’s current investment program, Qiddiya Gaming is, at best, part of a large-scale effort by an authoritarian regime to distract from its ongoing human rights abuses. At worst, Qiddiya’s attendance at PAX East creates an icon of one of the most legally homophobic nations in the world, and a statement that if you have enough money, you can simply buy your way into the industry, regardless of your treatment of other human beings. The fact that Qiddiya’s presence is upsetting queer and trans people, to say nothing of its trusted and long standing partners within the tabletop community, means that PAX East has an obligation to seriously consider their association with Qiddiya Gaming.

 

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