Golf’s decision makers should assess Saudi Arabia links

Report into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi raises some uncomfortable questions

Dustin Johnson with the trophy after winning the Saudi International last month. On his right is Yasir Al-Rumayyan, chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation and on his left is Majed Al Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation. Photo: Andrew Redington/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images

It is no mean feat to be instantly recognised by the world’s leading golfers. But then Majed al-Sorour bears gifts like few others. It is little wonder players lined up to take part in a video message for Sorour’s birthday given appearance fees for the recent Saudi International totalled around $15m. When Sorour, the chief executive of Golf Saudi, whistles there are precious few golfers unwilling to trundle along in line. That Kevin Na can command a payment just for turning up tells all about the scale of this lucrative operation. No offence etc.

Saudi Arabia's golf manoeuvres were the key theme for discussion among decision makers in the sport even before United States intelligence services issued a report that stated the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Saudi Arabia wants to be at golf's top table and has the resources to make that possible. In theory, that is.

When the PGA Tour and European Tour announced a strategic alliance late last year, Saudi Arabia remained on the outside looking in. It may be telling there isn’t yet a deal in place with the European Tour for future stagings of the Saudi International. However, the kingdom already has attachment to so many elements of this game: women ambassadors, male ambassadors, a men’s event, women’s events, course building, grassroots expansion.

Raine Capital has stepped back from its leading role with the breakaway Premier Golf League plan. Enter Saudi Arabia, which has a long-time stake in that. It remains a long shot that the plan will come to fruition – apart from anything else, there is little leeway for new competitions in a congested global schedule – but Saudi representation in Florida as the PGA Tour undertakes its typical swing there has generated further speculation about the coaxing of players to the PGL. There have been discussions, too, about Saudi involvement with the Asian Tour.

Shane Lowry has played the Saudi International for the last two years. Photo: Andrew Redington/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s attempts to “sportswash” after a string of human rights violations have long attracted the attentions of Amnesty International and others. Boxing and WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia means golf isn’t regarded as an isolated case. Likewise, the willingness with which golf turns a collective blind eye to matters of ethics when tournaments are hosted in the United Arab Emirates or China muddies the narrative.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia should be assessed differently in specific relation to golf because of the rising scale of the attachment. If Sorour is the public face, Yasir al-Rumayyan is another key protagonist. Rumayyan is not “only” the governor of Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund but the chairman of Golf Saudi. He sits on the board of SoftBank – which sponsors the European Tour’s annual visit to Saudi Arabia – and is the chairman of Aramco, which recently announced backing of four $1m tournaments on the Ladies European Tour (LET) spread across New York, London, Singapore and Jeddah. The Saudi golf span reaches far from Riyadh.

The LET did not respond when asked whether Golf Saudi or Aramco now have involvement with the Solheim Cup or, indeed, whether they remain comfortable with such serious commercial links given the Khashoggi report. In the LET, Saudi has an amenable partner. The business was desperate for higher purses and extra tournaments even before serious harm inflicted by Covid-19. Bluntly, the LET’s players appear useful and willing pawns in a game.

On the men’s side it is depressing that Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and others jet in and out of Saudi Arabia for their annual cash grab with barely a murmur of discontent, let alone decent explanation of why they – golfers who already have more money than the Beatles – believe this perfectly fair.

Sergio Garcia with Majed Al-Sorour ahead of the 2020 Saudi International. Photo: Andrew Redington/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images

Some, it must be noted, simply don't attend without attracting any attention over that decision. Tiger Woods has never performed in Saudi Arabia and it will be a surprise now if he ever does. When Rory McIlroy denounced the PGL, he supplied the crucial addendum of "not liking where the money was coming from". In McIlroy, now the chairman of the PGA Tour's player advisory council, the status quo has a key ally. Joe Biden's promise to recalibrate relations between the US and Saudi Arabia raises interesting questions about the future approach of Mickelson, Johnson et al. Should they sufficiently care, of course.

Perhaps Rumayyan, who is 51 and Harvard-educated, was so inspired by the greatness of Woods that golf became his sport of choice long ago. Those of us afforded more cynical disposition can point towards the safe, controversy-free domain that golf provides for anybody seeking a reputational uplift. Golf delivers strong links to property development, tourism and monied markets, even before the issue of so little pushback is contemplated. The Newcastle United takeover saga illustrates the trouble Saudi Arabia has encountered with other sports.

Evidence gathered by Turkish authorities shows just how horrendous the Khashoggi situation was. The journalist was dismembered, with investigative focus on a large oven where his remains were most likely disposed of. Saudi Arabia has consistently denied any involvement from the crown prince, instead branding this a botched "rogue" extradition. Nonetheless, evidence of several other abductions, attempted abductions and death threats aimed at Prince Mohammed's critics has emerged since Khashoggi died. If this entire scenario doesn't make golf and its players feel deeply uncomfortable, it should do. The Saudis have no apparent intention of backing away. – Guardian