News & Opinion

Saudi ‘sportswashing’ feels like a dirty trick

Competitors in the European Tour’s Saudi International this week ought to represent more than a cash grab and hollow ‘grow the game’ mantra. They're helping to legitimize a wicked Saudi regime.

Top Americans competing in this week’s controversial Saudi International on the European Tour justify their participation as a contribution to “growing the game” worldwide. That’s nonsense.

What they’re really doing, knowingly or not, is contributing to the “sportswashing” of Saudi Arabia.

“Sportswashing” is a term used to describe efforts by a nation to disguise and divert attention from its unsavory reputation by hosting high-profile sports events. It’s a tactic commonly used by countries that violate human rights.

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Brooks Koepka (left) and Dustin Johnson will lend some star power to this week’s Saudi International … for reported 7-figure appearance fees, of course.

Sporting events, even the Olympic Games, are complicit in sportswashing because money talks. Athletes are susceptible because of their tunnel vision. They exist in a cocoon, all too often either ignorant of life unrelated to their sport or simply not caring. The likes of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick and Paul Casey are outliers.

Professional golf is particularly insular. The game is all-consuming of players’ attention. If they don’t perform well, there are no teammates or long-term contracts to fall back on. Golfers are independent contractors who play when they want, where they want – even in one of the world’s most repressive countries. If they unwittingly endorse human-rights abuses, who cares?

Granted, European Tour members find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s their tour, and a big check in Saudi Arabia could make their season. They’re free not to enter, of course, but making that kind of political statement would not sit well with European Tour brass, who want harmony with deep-pocketed benefactors in the desert.

Casey, an Englishman who lives in Arizona and competes full time on the PGA Tour, withdrew from the inaugural Saudi International last year, citing the kingdom’s ugly human-rights record. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee took a courageous and impassioned stand against the tournament on air, shining a spotlight on hypocrisy in golf. The slaying and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – believed to have been ordered by the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – was the impetus behind Casey’s and Chamblee’s actions, but there’s much more to the Saudi story (“Pelley’s Saudi sand trap: Cancel or play?” Nov. 1, 2018).

Saudi Arabia for years has been criticized for fomenting terrorism via aggressive export of its Wahhabi brand of ultraconservative Islam. Osama bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Sunni Muslim states (aided by American military advisers) fighting in neighboring Yemen against Shia Houthis. The long-simmering conflict is complicated, but Saudi intervention in the civil war has been widely criticized by human-rights groups. Thousands of Yemeni noncombatants have been killed or wounded, often by indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes. A Saudi-enforced blockade of humanitarian aid has exacerbated famine in Yemen, affecting some 17 million residents.

According to the “CIA World Factbook,” Saudi Arabia “is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution; men and women from South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa who voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic servants or low-skilled laborers subsequently face conditions of involuntary servitude, including nonpayment and withholding of passports; some migrant workers are forced to work indefinitely beyond the term of their contract because their employers will not grant them a required exit visa; female domestic workers are particularly vulnerable because of their isolation in private homes.”

Saudi Arabia enforces Islamic Sharia Law. Its Basic Law of Government, introduced in 1992 by royal decree, is based on the Quran. The Basic Law is not codified, allowing judges to hand down arbitrarily harsh punishments, including public stoning, firing squads and beheadings for violations as disparate as murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking, apostasy, witchcraft and sorcery. Saudi Arabia didn’t abolish slavery until 1962.

Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old crown prince popularly known as MBS, portrays himself as a progressive reformer, with plans to modernize Saudi culture and the kingdom’s economy while maintaining religious traditions. He has curtailed powers of the kingdom’s religious police; loosened laws that require Saudi women to have a male guardian; granted women the right to drive; opened public movie theaters for the first time in 35 years; and implemented cuts in entitlements. But actions such as his 2017 purge of nearly 200 royal family members – based on corruption charges, but viewed by skeptics as a gambit to quell opposition and consolidate power – as well as the Khashoggi hit and recent allegations that his WhatsApp account was used to hack a cellphone belonging to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – cast doubt on MBS’ professed intentions. (Bezos owns the Washington Post, which employed Khashoggi.)

The European Tour turns a blind eye on Saudi behavior and defends its alliance as growing the game. That’s the same justification offered by the big-name American players in the Saudi International field – all of whom reportedly are collecting seven-figure appearance fees. (Tiger Woods, to his credit, turned down a reported $3 million incentive from the Saudis.)

The roster of Americans competing in Saudi Arabia includes Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed – the latter no doubt looking forward to a heckle-free week, expected since such disruptions would embarrass the hosts and be dealt with harshly. The first category of eligibility for the Saudi International includes the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, 14 of whom entered. (Tony Finau withdrew on Jan. 23, citing family reasons.)

Americans Phil Mickelson, Akshay Bhatia and Sebastian Crampton received special invitations. Mickelson doesn’t need the money, but he relishes the role of contrarian. Bhatia and Crampton are in no position to turn down the exposure. Bhatia, who turned pro last September after starring in the Walker Cup Matches, will celebrate his 18th birthday on Jan. 31. Crampton is a California-Berkeley graduate who competes on the PGA Canadian Tour. (Evidently, Berkeley’s liberalism didn’t rub off on him.)

Sean Crocker, a full-time European Tour member who played for Southern Cal, earned his berth in the Saudi International by finishing among the top 115 in the 2019 Race to Dubai rankings. Interestingly, when he was 5, his family moved to the States from Zimbabwe, to escape the corrupt regime of the late dictator Robert Mugabe.

As for the highly ranked Americans whose press releases tout their eagerness to grow the game in Saudi Arabia, the gesture may sound noble, but it’s disingenuous.

GolfAdvisor.com lists 13 golf facilities, comprising 225 holes, in Saudi Arabia. At least five courses feature sand fairways and sand greens (known as “browns”). Roughly 5,000 players are registered with the Saudi Arabia Golf Federation.

There’s obvious potential for golf to grow in Saudi Arabia, but in what form? Will efforts focus on building lavish resorts to attract tourists, and Mar-a-Lago-like private clubs that cater to the estimated 15,000 members of the kingdom’s extended royal family? Or will they create a network of more modest and affordable facilities, accessible to anyone who lives and works in the kingdom?

In 2016, MBS introduced Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 initiative, aimed at weening the kingdom off its reliance on oil revenue, creating a more diverse economy, and promoting active lifestyles. Golf publications have reported that the game is a key component to Vision 2030, with 34 new courses in some stage of planning or development. Yet there is no mention of golf on the official Vision 2030 website.

The population of Saudi Arabia is about 35 million, more than half younger than 30. The labor force of nearly 14 million includes close to three times as many immigrants or temporary workers as there are Saudi citizens. The immigrants do work that Saudis reject as being too menial and beneath them. That attitude is a byproduct of cradle-to-grave entitlements, funded by the monarchy’s vast wealth from petroleum sales.

As part of Vision 2030, the government wants to reduce dependence on foreign workers and fill the void with Saudi citizens. Despite a Saudi citizenry unemployment rate that’s estimated to be as high as 25 percent, employers have had difficulty filling government-mandated quotas. It seems Saudis who have grown up relying on government subsidies to help cover basic services – and, in the case of royal family members, provide significant discretionary spending money – simply aren’t motivated to work. Those citizens might welcome the opportunity to play golf instead, but somebody still has to build the facilities, maintain the courses, prepare food, wait tables, clean toilets, and sell apparel. Will they get to play, too?

Grow-the-game initiatives typically preach diversity, inclusion and accessibility. Those characteristics appear to be alien to Saudi society.

If Koepka, Johnson, Reed and Mickelson are sincere about promoting the game globally, they should consider donating their appearance fees to golf-development initiatives in countries more deserving than Saudi Arabia.

Take Tunisia, for example. It’s an Arab nation with 11 golf courses serving a population of 11.8 million, 800 of whom are counted as golfers. Surely Senegal, population 17.7 million (95 percent Muslim), with four courses and 300 golfers, is ripe for golf development. Another prime candidate is Ukraine, with only six courses and 536 registered golfers in a country of 43.7 million. Those nations have flaws, but unlike Saudi Arabia they are democracies that rank comparatively high in various freedom indexes.

Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Senegal and Ukraine are among the 146 nations affiliated with the International Golf Federation, the administrative body that oversees golf for the International Olympic Committee and runs the World Amateur Team Championships. Among the IGF’s “strategic pillars” is the desire to “engage and excite the world about golf and its values.”

Saudi Arabia habitually demonstrates that it doesn’t share those values. Until it does, the notion of “growing the game” there rings hollow.

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