Published On: Thu, Jun 9th, 2022

PGA Tour suspends golfers playing in Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf tournament

It’s not just sports grappling with these questions, of course. 

President Joe Biden is set to visit Saudi Arabia next month and will likely meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a significant reversal after vowing to treat the country as a “pariah” and one that comes amid concerns over rising gas prices in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary under George W. Bush, hosted the LIV tournament’s news conferences in the buildup to Thursday’s launch. And two of the eight LIV events will take place on courses owned by former President Donald Trump.

But while the kingdom seeks to emulate its neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have both invested in sports teams and tournaments, experts say Saudi Arabia’s more high-profile modern history of human rights abuses could nullify any reputational gains.

“Saudi Arabia is still in the beginning of its soft [foreign] policy towards the world,” said Sebastian Sons, a researcher at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, a think tank in Bonn, Germany. “It tries to do similar things to the UAE and Qatar, but due to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi it will remain extremely problematic for S.A. to improve its image just through sports events,”

As Sons puts it, “Those golfers, whether they like it or not, and whether they acknowledge it or not, they are implicitly ambassadors and they are communicating messages on behalf of the Saudi state.”

Human rights campaigners have for years accused Saudi Arabia of “sportswashing” — using glitzy high-profile events to improve its global reputation despite limited domestic reforms.

“Instead of establishing the rule of law in the country and a professional legal system, ending the horrendous due process violations, halting arrests of people expressing themselves peacefully … instead of doing that, you invest massive sums of money in getting essentially a lot of celebrities and athletes to associate with you,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East. 

Like many Gulf states, the country is undergoing a long-term shift: It aims to make 10 percent of its national income from tourism by 2030, up from just 3 percent in 2019. Experts see sports as a big part of this — both by helping to attract foreign investment and providing jobs for a young population with high unemployment.

But reputational concerns still play a crucial role.

“On one hand I don’t think it’s principally engaged in what it’s doing for the purposes of sportswashing,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor and director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at the Emlyon Business School in France.

However, Chadwick added: “There are reputational benefits by focusing our attention on golf, or football, or motor racing or whatever else it might be, and that may divert people away from talking about Khashoggi, from talking about Yemen and talking about the 81 people who were executed on one day.”

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