For greedy golf stars, it's cash over human rights in Saudi's league

For greedy golf stars, it's cash over human rights in Saudi's league
7 min read
18 May, 2022
Golf's biggest players have tried to justify their collaboration with Saudi Arabia's new breakaway league as healthy competition and fresh starts, but their greed only helps Riyadh sportswash its dismal human rights record, writes Anthony Harwood.
The threat of a Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway golf league has attracted some big names and sparked human rights concerns, in a move that threatens to fracture the golfing world. [Getty]

The former world number one golfer Greg Norman recently brushed away human rights concerns about Saudi money financing the sport’s breakaway league by saying about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi: “Everybody makes mistakes”.

It was a remark that betrayed the kind of ignorance that we’ve come to associate with sports stars seeking to justify their morally questionable decisions.

We do all make mistakes, of course. Another Saudi cheerleader, the golfer Phil Mickelson, made one when he described the Riyadh authorities as ‘“scary mother*******”.

The sentiment was correct, of course, but his error was believing his comments to his biographer were off the record and would not be reported. Big mistake!  

Mr Norman forgave Mickelson’s remarks after they succeeded in putting off other golfers from joining the lucrative Saudi-backed league that the Australian is trying to get off the ground. “We all screw up,” he told him.

"Saudi abuses of human rights are relentless and ongoing on multiple fronts, whether it be the beheading of Shia minority activists, the incarceration of women rights activists and gay social media influencers or the bombing of civilians in Yemen"

But it seems his willingness to forgive has now been extended to the Saudi Arabian hit squad who flew from Riyadh to Istanbul to carry out the cold, brutal murder of Khashoggi in the country’s consulate.

“Look, we've all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them moving forward,” Norman said.

Asked about the mass execution of 81 men by Saudi Arabia, many of them pro-democracy demonstrators, in a single day in March, he replied:  “I got a lot of messages but quite honestly I look forward, I don’t look back”.

How very convenient for the man who Saudi Arabia has just handed a $2 billion war chest to finance a breakaway league that threatens to tear apart the world of golf.

Amnesty International called Norman’s remarks downplaying the murder of Khashoggi “wrong and seriously misguided”.

“Far from trying to ‘move on’, the Saudi authorities have attempted to sweep their crimes under the carpet, avoiding justice and accountability at every turn,” said the human rights charity. It went on: “The regime’s human rights record is an abomination – from its murder of Jamal Khashoggi to recent mass executions and the situation for LGBT+ people, which continues to be dire.”

In other words, the murder of Khashoggi was not some aberration, a temporary blip for which an otherwise blameless Saudi leadership should be forgiven.

Saudi abuses of human rights are relentless and ongoing on multiple fronts, whether it be the beheading of Shia minority activists, the incarceration of women rights activists and gay social media influencers or the bombing of civilians in Yemen.

To win forgiveness you have to show a willingness to change and bring about real reform, and Saudi Arabia has displayed none of this.

Another golfer joining the Saudi project, the British player and former world number one Lee Westwood, came out with some extraordinary remarks that epitomised the muddled thinking sports stars come out with to justify their decisions.

You would expect someone like him to know what the term ‘sportswashing’ meant, at the very least that it is thought to be a ‘bad thing’.

The term was coined by Amnesty International to describe countries with toxic human rights reputations who use the glamour of sport to distract from the bad publicity they get from violating human rights. And yet, in an interview with Sky Sports, Westwood practically admitted that he is engaged in sportswashing.

“Saudi Arabia know they’ve got issues,” he said. “I think they’re trying to improve. They’re trying to do it through sport, which a lot of countries do”.

Lee, you do not improve a country’s human rights record through sport. You do so when you stop torturing, imprisoning and killing people. The sport bit is when you want to distract people from all the bad things you are doing because, by the very word sportswashing, you use it to cleanse a country of its bad reputation.

"To win forgiveness you have to show a willingness to change and bring about real reform, and Saudi Arabia has displayed none of this"

Westwood also talked about the sporting revolution that Saudi Arabia is trying to bring about, whether it be boxing, Formula One or football.

“I think they’re trying to do it a lot quicker than some countries and that worries people, scares people, because they don’t like change, do they? They like continuity and things to stay the same.”

In reality, the reason Saudi Arabia is doing it a lot quicker than other countries is because they’ve got a lot more prize money to offer, which multi-millionaires like you are happy to grab, even if it means destroying the existing set-ups upon which you built your fortune and career.

Westwood is 49-years-old - and World Number 58 –  the sort of golfer coming to the end of his career that the Saudi project is most likely to attract. But for it to truly succeed it needs to attract the world’s best in a move that could spell the end of the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, the Ryder Cup and possibly the majors.

Perspectives

Mainly due to the opposition of top golfers like Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, the breakaway league has had to be postponed, rather than cancelled altogether.

Instead the Saudis, led by Norman, are having to make do with hosting individual tournaments that run alongside the traditional tours, such the one outside London next month that Westwood wants to play in.

Westwood goes on: “It’s an opportunity to play in a big tournament against some of the best players in the world, in England. I love playing in England in front of home fans so anytime there’s an opportunity like that I feel I should take it.”

But you were playing in England this month, in front of home fans, in the British Masters at the Belfry. So what’s the difference? Could it be that the prize fund at the Belfry is just $2.5m compared with the $25m up for grabs at the Saudi one?

This week, the battle lines were drawn up when the PGA Tour refused to give permission for players like Westwood  to compete in next month’s Saudi-backed LIV event.

"Don’t let Greg Norman take the moral high ground when he says that all he is trying to do is grow the game of golf and anyone who tries to stop players making more money is 'anti-competitive'"

If players who join the Saudi league receive lengthy bans from the traditional tours then Norman says his side is ready with injunctions to start legal battles that could overshadow the run-up to the 150th British Open at the home of golf, St Andrews, in July.

“They can fine you, ban you for life or temporarily suspend you,” said Norman. “We have $2 billion backing us, we have an incredible legal team and we are still going to defend the rights of players.”

Don’t let Greg Norman take the moral high ground when he says that all he is trying to do is grow the game of golf and anyone who tries to stop players making more money is ‘anti-competitive’.

In reality, he is using the petrol millions from a despotic regime to play on the greed of very wealthy players to make them even richer.

Hopefully the likes of Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia get lifetime bans from the PGA and DP World Tour for their self-serving actions that benefit only themselves and a Saudi regime which has caused, and continues to cause, so much suffering.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail. 

Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

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.