Sportswashing Premium+: How Saudi Arabia bought Golf itself
In terms of sportswashing - whereby a country with a toxic human rights reputation uses sport to distract public opinion from its wrongs – there has never been anything like it.
Over the years we’ve seen a Premier League soccer club being bought by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and multiple world heavyweight boxing fights in its desert arenas. Two years ago came the kingdom’s inaugural Grand Prix followed by reports that it wanted to buy Formula One for £20bn.
Earlier this month we learned that its Public Investment Fund (PIF) had bought 75% stakes in four of its own top flight clubs. Cristiano Ronaldo is already playing for one of them, Karim Benzema has signed for another and the chances are that the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar will follow.
But never before has a country been able to buy up an entire sport in the way that Saudi Arabia has just walked away with the game of Golf.
''Who wants to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman handing out prizes knowing how many executions that man has presided over?''
It’s been just a year since the breakaway Riyadh-backed LIV Golf Series hosted its first tournament, sparking a heated debate about what lasting damage it would do to the gentleman’s sport popularised in the modern era by champions such as Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods.
The ‘rebels’ led by another former champion, Greg Norman, were able to lure away some of the world’s top players from the traditional circuits – the PGA and DP World Tours - with eye-watering sums of money from the Saudis.
Many key players did stick by their tours – and their principles - including Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who turned down a massive $800m deal. They argued that the sport could not sustain a rival tour stealing the world’s best from the traditional ones with McIlroy signalling his opposition to Saudi involvement with an attitude of: ‘It’s the human rights, stupid’.
But with players already feeling they were away from their families enough as it was before LIV turned up, something had to give if the Saudis were going to get their way. The hope was that the world’s best golfers would choose not to sign up and LIV would become an irrelevance.
But the money on the table was so big that top players who were starting to get on in years saw it as a way to keep making a lot more money. Players like Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson led the rebel charge.
To stop the best talent leaving, the rival tours upped their prize money, something LIV-supporting critics said they should have done years ago and were only forced to do by the arrival of the Saudi venture.
The head of the PGA Tour, Jay Monahan, seemed resolute in his opposition to LIV and the need to ban those who defected. He even highlighted the Saudi government’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks, as well as its well documented human rights abuses, as important reasons why the public should oppose LIV Golf.
Relatives of those killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks even began turning up to demonstrate at LIV tournaments when they arrived in America. One of them was held at a course in Bedminster, New Jersey owned by Donald Trump, who as president had acted as an apologist for Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the state’s 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A state of not-so-peaceful co-existence continued, occasionally punctuated by news that another golfer had joined the rebel tour.
The major tournaments, such as the US Masters, were open to all competitors and became tribal events with rival teams cheering on their players. By early in the summer, it appeared a stalemate had been reached with each side continuing on its path while maintaining the righteousness of its position.
What happened next nobody could have predicted, least of all the players themselves.
On 6 June every golfer’s phone lit up with the news that the PGA Tour and DP World Tour would be merging with the LIV circuit – in return for billions of dollars of investment from the Saudis.
In a stroke, Monahan had performed a spectacular 180 degree U-turn which made those who had stuck to their principles by not defecting now look stupid. No wonder his talks with the players afterwards was described as “heated” and “intense” as charges of hypocrisy were thrown at him.
US Masters champion Jon Rahm said players felt a sense of “betrayal” by what had happened. And one rebel, the current British Open champion, Cameron Smith, said he thought it was “a joke” when he heard the news.
We know little apart from the fact that Monahan has signed a deal with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the head of the trillion dollar strong PIF. It appears a framework agreement was put in place to call a halt to the increasing amount of litigation arising from the player bans but the detail still needs to be thrashed out of how it will all work.
Calling the situation confusing, US Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick said: “Are we signing with the PIF? Are we not signing with the PIF? I’ve no idea. Nobody knows what’s going on apart from about four people in the world”.
Just a handful of people to sell out a sport with a 280-year history and a peculiar etiquette around lost balls, slow play and what dress code to follow.
Is there not a rule against bringing the game into disrepute? Who wants to see Aramco branding along our lush green fairways as a reminder of the oil millions that have enabled Saudi Arabia to steal the sport of Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino.
Who wants to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman handing out prizes knowing how many executions that man has presided over?
Two people currently on death row in Saudi Arabia were minors at the time of their arrest for taking part in demonstrations in the minority Shia region in the Eastern Province. One is accused of crimes including attending funerals between the ages of 15 and 17 that were deemed by the authorities to be “protests”.
In a letter to Department of Justice Officials, two US senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden, said the golf deal should be investigated for breaching anti-trust laws and allowing Saudi Arabia to “sportswash” its “egregious human rights record.”
“The PGA-LIV deal would make a US organisation complicit – and force American golfers and their fans to join this complicity – in the Saudi regime’s latest attempt to sanitise its abuses by pouring funds into major sports leagues”, they said.
It may well be that we don’t get clarity about the way forward until US Senate hearings next month which Monahan, Al-Rumayyan and Norman have been asked to attend.
But for the moment Saudi sportswashing is on full spin, and good players with a strong moral compass are being hung out to dry.
Players like McIlroy, one of the most vocal critics of LIV, now forced to accept the inevitable with the words: “When you’re up against one of the richest sovereign wealth funds in the world and faced with them either being the enemy or a partner, you’d rather have them as a partner”.
The things you never thought you’d hear them say – and the thing you never thought they would do.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.