Media can take a stand by boycotting European Tour event in Saudi Arabia
Tour itself didn’t mention it in season schedule as criticism gets louder every day
Keith Pelley, CEO of The European Tour has stayed on script when asked about event in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
When parsing press releases, it always pays to examine what isn’t there while you’re wading through the swamp of guff that is. The European Tour announced their finalised schedule for 2019 last week and over the course of 1,032 words of PR gold, they gave shout-outs to pretty much everything that will happen in European golf next year.
Everything got a mention, from the Rolex Series to Golf Sixes to the Trophy Hassan in Morocco and the Vic Open in Australia, both of which will feature men and women playing together. The just about stopped short of listing the date for the captain’s prize at Portmarnock.
Except for one thing. The press release made no mention anywhere of the Saudi International, being played for the first time as a European Tour event next January. They made sure to give a big welcome to the Kenya Open, the other new event on the schedule, penned in for next March. You would imagine that if a low-grade event like the Kenya Open (total purse, €1.1m) merits a full paragraph, surely a higher-profile newcomer like the Saudi International (total purse $3.5m) would as well.
But no. Not so much as a sentence. Not that there was any news to relate – the tour inked a three-year deal with Saudi Arabia last March, making it the third tournament in the prestigious Desert Swing at that kicks the year into gear through the middle and end of January. Back then, tour CEO Keith Pelley was positively gushing about the development, and especially grateful to the Saudi head of state for his role in the coup.
“We are very excited to be talking the first steps toward bringing professional golf to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time and I must thank His Royal Majesty, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for his vision in making this happen,” Pelley said. Nothing to be bashful about back then, clearly.
Spin the tape on and it would be an understatement to say that the tour’s Middle Eastern coup has been somewhat overtaken by events. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey and the ongoing brutality waged by the Saudis in Yemen means that suddenly Pelley’s little coup in adding another oil state to his list of tour stops suddenly looks like nothing to shout too loudly from the rooftops about.
And as for his good friend Prince Salman, let’s just say it will be interesting to see what the invite list looks like at the Royal Greens GC 12 weeks from now. Presumably he will want in on this joyous new event that is gracing his country. It’s not inconceivable he’ll want to be there while the trophy is presented. Might even want to do the honours himself. Now there’s a photo to hang on the wall at tour headquarters.
Finally, belatedly and at the point of a bayonet, Pelley took questions over the weekend on it. Not that he was in the mood for sharing very much that would count as being enlightening, of course. Or indeed very much of anything, come to that.
Yes, the tournament is on the schedule for 2019. No, he hasn’t talked to anyone from Saudi government or golf federation in the past three weeks. No, he hasn’t talked to any players about it. No, he hasn’t talked to sponsors about it. To every other question on the issue came a stock answer – “we’ll continue to monitor the situation.”
Well, all other questions except one. Pelley had been to Saudi Arabia earlier in the year to sign the deal that would make the tournament part of the tour from next January onwards. Based on his experiences while he was there, he was asked what his response would be if one of the players came to him to express concerns now. The reply was drearily, predictably tin-eared.
“The golf course is terrific,” Pelley pronounced. “It’s in excellent shape. And that’s what – that’s the first thing that I would talk about. I always talk about the golf course. I always talk about what kind of shape it is in. And when you look at that Middle East swing, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, it gets three very strong tournaments at the beginning of the year.”
He’s not wrong, of course. To the outside world, those words might well read like someone has their priorities a little off-kilter but no, the simple truth is Pelley’s constituents are the players and the even simpler truth is that they don’t care about any of this. For the most part, all they want to know is how close the hotel is to the course, how close the course is to the airport, how many drives they can hit in a round and how pure are the greens. After that, everything else is noise.
Pádraig Harrington made a manful effort during the week in Turkey to tease out the rights and wrongs of going to play in Saudi at a time when they are a clear and obvious bad actor on the world stage. His point was along the lines of it being dangerous to push nations away by shutting them off and refusing to go and play there. And even if you see that as somewhat mealy-mouthed, at least Harrington had the wit and stones to give an opinion on a live issue. He didn’t go hiding like the tour did for most of the week.
Pelley says they will monitor the situation but gave no hint of what that might mean. If the Saudis keep up their rampage in Yemen – and there’s no suggestion that they’re in any way minded to back off – does monitoring it mean that Pelley keeps an eye on CNN for the next three months and then just turns up and plays on regardless? Presumably, that’s exactly what it means. The contracts are signed, the money is huge and Pelley is the chief bottle-washer at an organisation that turned over €70m in sponsorship money alone last year.
Here’s a thing, though. If the Saudi International does go ahead, surely it’s not beyond the wit of us all to ignore it? There is no pretence here – Saudi Arabia is hosting a golf tournament so that the wider world will think better of Saudi Arabia, will look the other way on its appalling human rights, will maybe even make it a tourist destination like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
So how about this? How about the media decides as one not to give it what it wants? A journalist was murdered for doing his job in relation to the Saudi state – can we maybe do ours and decide not to be used for their propaganda? How about everyone – from Sky Sports to the Golf Channel to PA to The New York Times to The Irish Times to the lowliest golf podcast or blog – how about we all decide that for that week, the tour stop gets a black-out?
Journalism has to be about more than parsing press releases, after all.