An announcement by the Ladies European Tour (LET) last month reignited a controversy about professional golf tournaments taking place in Saudi Arabia.
It may seem that the horse has already bolted following the European Tour’s Saudi International golf tournaments of 2019 and 2020, but the LET is also involved. The original plan was for the Ladies’ event to take place in March 2020, two months after the men, but Covid-19 put a stop to that. Until now.
In October, the LET announced not one but two ‘landmark’ tournaments for November (12-19), with prize money of $1.5 million on offer.
A glossy video hit the airways showing female professionals giving lessons to young SaudiArabian kids, hitting golf balls and displaying the wonders of the kingdom.
If you are wondering what the controversy is it’s called sportswashing.
Sportswashing is how a country uses sports to wash over its human rights records or wash away its tyrannical reputation. The term became popular in 2018 (it appeared in the Macmillan online dictionary) but dates back to 2015, when it was first used by the Sports For Rights campaign. At issue was Azerbaijan’s attempts to wash its human rights record by hosting 2015’s European Games.
More recently, the term has been used when discussing Saudi Arabia. The kingdom began investing heavily in sports in late 2016, with the aim of attracting tourism. It was, however, also a public relations exercise to sportswash the country’s image. Saudi Arabia looked at investing in global football, pursued opportunities with the WWE, and formed a partnership with the European Tour.
These were not the only sports. In late 2018, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were due to play an exhibition match – the King Salman Tennis Championship – in King Abdullah Sports City, with each player receiving an estimated $1 million. It never happened (Nadal withdrew due to injury only days before) but it certainly made clear the kingdom’s sporting ambitions.
In December 2019, Anthony Joshua regained his heavyweight boxing belts following a fight against Andy Ruiz Jr, in Riyadh. Depending on which report you believe, Joshua earned between Stg £50 million and £100 million for his victory. Facing the same criticisms as other sports stars competing in Saudi Arabia, he shrugged them off:
"I just came here for the boxing opportunity,” Joshua said. “I look around and everyone seems pretty happy and chilled. I've not seen anyone in a negative light out here, everyone seems to be having a good time," he told the BBC.
So where does the golf fit in? In January 2019, unfortunately.
Last week, Formula One announced that it had signed a minimum 10 year deal to run a Formula One event in the country.
In response to the immediate criticism from human rights groups, it said: "We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered."
A few bite size chunks of PR-speak is all it takes to clear the conscience, it seems.
Let’s take a step back and look at what Saudi Arabia is trying to achieve as a nation. The kingdom is heavily reliant on oil to drive its economy but recent efforts have been focused elsewhere. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy. This includes sustainable development goals such as peace, justice, no poverty, climate action, quality education and gender equality. In essence the strategy is the kingdom’s attempt to move away from its reliance on oil. It is an ambitious project and one that can change the social, economic and political structures. Only in his 30s, the Crown Prince is regarded as a progressive reformer attempting to modernise an unashamedly conservative country. He was making inroads and was well regarded by other nations… until October 2018.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi Arabian hit squad in Turkey made headlines around the world. The murder was condemned, especially as the CIA believe that the man behind the murder was none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Worldwide, any goodwill generated by the Crown Prince evaporated instantly as the kingdom sought to cover up any links to the prince.
The European Tour’s first Saudi International golf tournament took place in January 2019, just three months after Khashoggi’s murder. It attracted many of the biggest names in the sport including Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. Those are two names you won’t see on the regular European Tour timesheet. Johnson won the tournament, claiming his share of the $3.5 million prize fund. It was a big coup for Saudi Arabia but a black mark against the European Tour.
Justin Rose, world number one at the time, justified his participation with the most clichéd of responses: "I'm not a politician, I'm a pro golfer." Others, though, were prepared to draw the line publicly:
"As I continue to face questions about my participation, I feel it is important to clarify that I will not be playing in next week's Saudi International event," Paul Casey said on his Instagram feed.
Golfers are not politicians, this is true, but they are happy to toe the line when the price is right. Sadly, in the modern age of celebrity and sports fandom, what a professional golfer says can have a far bigger impact than the endless clichés of a politician.
Fast forward to February 2020, and Graeme McDowell won the second Saudi International tour event against another global field, several of whom were lured by seven figure appearance fees. Many of the same faces from 2019 reappeared in 2020. Given the controversies of the inaugural event and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing troubles (e.g. tapping Jeff Bezos’s phone) these golfers faced some tough questions.
That didn’t apply to Rory McIlroy who openly said that morality played a part in his decision not to compete, despite a $2.5 million appearance fee being offered.
“It’s just not something that would excite me,” McIlroy told Golf Channel. “One hundred percent, there’s a morality to it as well . . .
“You could say that about so many countries, not just Saudi Arabia, but a lot of countries that we play in there’s a reason not to go, but for me, I just don’t want to go.”
McIlroy deserves to be applauded. If only more golfers were prepared to speak out… and not just on the Saudi Arabia issue. Consider the European Tour stops of Qatar, China and Turkey, where human rights abuses also run rife.
Rory’s stand doesn’t appear to have made much difference as Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau committed last week to playing in the third Saudi International, in February 2021.
The trouble is, despite the negative commentary, the LET intended to follow the men. The first Aramco Saudi Ladies International was planned for 19-22 March 2019. Eyebrows were raised: the size of the prize fund weighed in at $1 million, the second largest figure for a non-major on the LET; and Saudi Arabia’s record on the treatment of women is hardly exemplary.
True, women may now drive thanks to a law introduced in June 2018 (Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to ban female drivers), but dress codes alone show how oppressed women are, and women rights activists and lawyers have been targeted in a sweeping human rights crackdown.
One lone female professional spoke up: the 25-year old Englishwoman, Meghan Maclaren, with four wins to her name, gave the following rationale for not competing:
“I’ve decided not to play based on what I think sport is being used to do in Saudi Arabia. It’s far more complicated than any one individual, so it’s a personal decision and not something I would push onto anyone else. But based on the research of organisations like Amnesty International, I couldn’t be comfortable being part of that process.”
Amnesty later responded to Maclaren’s comments. “Given the way the Saudi authorities are ramping up their involvement in major events to try to ‘sportswash’ their abysmal human rights record, top-tier sportspeople may want to push back against efforts to use them in this kind of PR.”
Any thought of the event sinking without trace was dismissed last week with the LET’s announcement. That glossy video to accompany the announcement showed female professionals wearing trousers. In one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, with strict dress code for women, it is expected that the golfers will have to compete in trousers, too. Temperatures reach 30 degrees Celsius during the day in November.
The thing is, as much Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 shows ambition, the kingdom is trying to buy golf and buy acceptance, and the European Tour and LET have played into Saudi Arabia’s hands. They have allowed the kingdom to dictate the terms while offering feeble platitudes that these tournaments are helping to grow the game. Yes, Saudi Arabia is promising to build more courses (expect big names to be designing them – Greg Norman is already signed up) to boost its tourism trade but whether this will ‘grow the game’ within the country is another matter entirely. The golf management company, Troon, has been tasked with providing strategic insights into the development of golf in the country, making it clear that Saudi Arabia’s intention is to become a big player in the golfing world. Over a dozen new courses are planned.
Rory made some powerful points about morality playing its part in his decision not to compete in Saudi Arabia, but the last word should be left to Meghan Maclaren and what she said about the planned LET event in March:
“We take for granted a lot of the choices and freedom we have available to us, but I try to make my decisions based on who I am as a person, not just a golfer. It’s obviously a huge tournament for us, but this to me is about more than golf. I wish sport as a whole looked through a lens deeper than what benefits itself.”