A Bogey League: How Saudi's human rights record is driving a wedge in the golfing world
I wonder how many people can name all the sports which Saudi Arabia is exploiting to bolster its reputation.
A report last year by the human rights organisation Grant Liberty found that Riyadh is spending at least $1.5bn on high profile international sporting events.
But that didn’t include last October’s $400m takeover of the Premier League football club Newcastle United, and the club’s $112.3m spend during the January transfer window. When factored in, we’re over the $2bn mark. In fact, any figure you put on the Saudi ‘sportswashing’ spend is pretty soon going to be out of date.
The Riyadh regime is constantly pushing for new ways to spend money on sport, cleansing itself of its toxic reputation as a serial human rights violator.
"The Riyadh regime is constantly pushing for new ways to spend money on sport, cleansing itself of its toxic reputation as a serial human rights violator"
Nowhere is Saudi money dividing a sport as sharply as the world of golf. The spectre of a Saudi-backed breakaway Super Golf League (SGL) is threatening to do to the sport what the European Super League failed to do, at least for now, to the world of soccer.
That is to hive off enough of the top players on the circuit as to render the traditional tours, the Ryder Cup and possibly even the major tournaments meaningless because so many of the world’s best have been banned from competing.
And so, with many leading golfers insisting they will never be part of any Saudi-backed breakaway, the game faces being split down the middle.
This week, it was claimed that 20 players have signed up for the rebel league, prompting speculation that a formal unveiling of the new circuit could be made as early as next month during the rival PGA Tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship.
A company owned by former US president Donald Trump is reportedly in talks to host events for a new Saudi-backed golf tourhttps://t.co/ACXRPcdKDo— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) February 20, 2022
However that was before an extraordinary outburst by one of the leading advocates of the Saudi project, six times major winner Phil Mickelson, who suggested it could all be just a play act. One the leading champions of the Saudi project, six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, has suggested it could be a play, using the prospect of a Saudi league as leverage against the PGA tour.
“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay,” he said of the Saudis. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates…the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want the SGL to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
Here was Mickelson, who has previously accused the PGA Tour of ‘obnoxious greed’ over its ownership of players’ media rights, basically saying he was using the Saudi project as leverage to get golfers better pay deals.
In a way that has worked. Since the Saudi plot emerged, the PGA and others have responded by bumping up the prize money players can win on the traditional tours, and will continue to do so. Young players coming through will soon be able to get very rich very quickly and won’t need the lure of Saudi money.
Following Mickelson’s remarks, two key players thought to be on the verge of signing with the breakaway league reversed course, prompting former world number one Rory McIlroy to describe the Saudi project as “dead in the water”.
With the likes of Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau dropping out, the so-called Super League could end up looking like something of an ‘Old Gits’ club where players coming to the end of their careers opt to make a fortune having one last hurrah before they retire.
How disappointing that, instead of giving something back to the game that made them, these multi-millionaires are happy to tear it apart for yet more money.
Top players, including world number one John Ram and Open Championship winner Collin Morikawa, as well as Rory McIlory, Brooks Koepka and even Tiger Woods, have all ruled out joining the rebels, many citing human rights concerns.
McIlroy went so far as to describe Mickelson’s comments as ‘naïve, selfish, egotistical, ignorant’.
"When it comes to sportswashing, athletes have a choice to either refuse Saudi money out of principle, or to take the money, and dodge difficult questions by asserting, 'I’m a player not a politician'"
When it comes to sportswashing, athletes have a choice to either refuse Saudi money out of principle, or to take the money, and dodge difficult questions by asserting, “I’m a player not a politician”. But in Saudi Arabia, where sports and politics are intricately intertwined, deflecting human rights concerns becomes disingenuous.
Four years ago, the Saudi government used a Formula E motor race to project a better image of itself, with men and women mingling at a concert alongside the track. Some were dancing, just weeks after it was reported a 14-year-old boy had been arrested for doing the Macarena in the street.
The same year, to great fanfare, women were given the right to drive although those who campaigned for such a move, like Loujain al-Hathloul, were thrown in jail and tortured.
The cumulative effect of all the hype around sporting events – whether it be horse racing’s $20m Saudi Cup or Formula One’s ten-year deal worth $500m – is an image of Saudi Arabia as a beacon of tourism and entertainment.
But it is all part of a very expensive facade whereby the desert kingdom is able to sanitise its image while, behind the scenes, the same abuses are perpetuated.
Yemen is still being bombed, with one air strike on a detention centre last month leaving 100 dead, in a country where tens of thousands of civilians, including more than 10,000 children, have been killed or wounded.
The Saudi regime continues its crackdown on scholars, activists, pro-democracy campaigners, and dissidents.
Against this backdrop, golfers and other athletes, already sitting on million dollar fortunes, have to decide whether their conscience or their greed is going to get the better of them.
As former chairman of the European Tour Players Committee Jamie Spence put it: “What’s happening with the Saudis, I liken it to eating from a dessert trolley filled with all the cakes you could desire, and then someone comes along with another trolley filled with a chocolate cake and, even though you’re full, you still can’t resist. Well, time to decide which trolleys, guys. You can’t have both”.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood
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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.