Brace for another season of upheaval in the sports world. The Arabs are coming. Again. After the Qatar World Cup raised misgivings about sportswashing, that charge is now being levelled at Saudi Arabia. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF has essentially bought professional golf, taking over the PGA Tour by merging it with LIV, a new, smaller competition golf series that Saudi Arabia launched in 2021. Last year’s World Cup taught the Saudis a very important lesson. Oil is temporary; sport is for ever.
The move has triggered outrage. Human Rights Watch declared that Saudi Arabia “is attempting to ‘sportswash’ its egregious record of human rights violations”. US media channels have numerous segments discussing the ethics of accepting money from a notoriously brutal regime. These are justified concerns: Saudi Arabia’s image problem has intensified under its leader, Mohammed bin Salman, who brought the nation into global disrepute with the grisly murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a crackdown on political opposition and the ramping up of capital punishment. Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in 24 hours for crimes that included witchcraft and drug smuggling.
But Qatar has taught the Saudis another important lesson: controversy dies down once the event gets going. The World Cup in Qatar started with boycotts and ended with what was hailed as the greatest final of all time. The PGA outrage will probably last longer, because the Saudis have really strayed out of their lane here. Weapons are one thing but this is golf, a spectator event of hushed cerebral commentary. A petrostate is capturing the favoured pastime of a refined, old-money elite, of CEOs in country clubs and neutral colours.
That world belongs to the Saudis now. The PGA-LIV merger has forced through a dramatic change of heart within the upper echelons of the sport. The PGA Tour commissioner, Jay Monahan, had previously denounced LIV, and compared the PGA players that it tempted away to the perpetrators of 9/11. Those principles, it turns out, were for sale. The money won: $3bn, to be precise; enough to sweep Monahan’s moral misgivings about terrorism and the integrity of golf aside. Grubby as the U-turn sounds, Monahan and the PGA are only continuing a long American tradition of nose-holding over Saudi Arabia, if the price is right.
For all the moral queasiness, the PGA takeover reflects the Anglo-American ethos of capitalist enterprise. The Saudis are as free as anyone on the market to make the best offer. Their main crime, it seems, is in revealing that the globalised free market makes no exemptions, or space for moral sanctities. When a cultural institution is sold to the highest bidder, there’s nothing stopping it from being pressed into the service of a foreign kingdom’s quest for reputation laundering. Saudi Arabia, in search of ways to diversify its portfolio of assets beyond oil, has long worked to thwart the moral declarations of leaders who pledged to punish the regime for its human rights abuses.
On the campaign trail in 2019, Joe Biden said that Saudi Arabia would be punished for its murder of Khashoggi, and for the brutal war in Yemen, pledging to end the sale of materiel to the Saudis “where they’re going in and murdering children”. “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price,” he said, “and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” But last year, the US sold $3bn worth of Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia. The country maintains that these are only “defensive”, not offensive weapons, although experts maintain that Washington has made “no distinction” between these two categories.
It is hard to capture just how much Saudi Arabia has changed over the past 10 years, and how well that has served its attempts to pitch itself as a nation that is trying its best to move on from its fundamentalist past. Prince Mohammed has pushed through a slate of social liberalisation policies, overturning public order laws and bans on women driving, and purging the country’s powerful religious establishment. A country that outlawed cinemas is today hosting open-air concerts and fashion weeks, and inviting the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for long audiences with Prince Mohammed. After his visit, Friedman heralded the arrival of “Saudi Arabia’s Arab spring, at last”, under Prince Mohammed and his reform project. “Only a fool would predict its success – but only a fool would not root for it.”
With this rebranding, Saudi Arabia joins Qatar and the UAE in understanding that apparent social liberalism takes the edges off political despotism and smooths entry into polite global society. It makes it easier for an Anglo-American elite to justify its cosiness with the regime, on the grounds of business and security interests. Saudi Arabia’s entry into professional golf is a bitter pill to swallow, but there will be more. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund already owns Newcastle United, recruited Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to play in its domestic league, bought two Anthony Joshua boxing matches and a slot on the Formula One calendar, and plans to invest a further $20bn to attract global stars to its domestic football league.
In doing so, the Saudis have revealed their confident place in a global financial system whose gatekeepers let them in long ago. So don’t hate the players. Hate the game.
Published: 2023-06-13 05:00:39