Saudi ‘sportswashing’ designed to obscure obscene human rights record

Proposed Premier Golf League another attempt to use sport for base political reasons

You might have seen Sky getting post ironic this week. A reporter tracked down a Glazer family member. Let's not pretend we know the difference between the family members, whether it's Joel or Avram or Bryan or Darcie.

The intrepid woman followed the Glazer family member, who didn’t look around, didn’t speak, didn’t acknowledge her, just walked zombie-like as she bombarded him with questions.

Is it time to sell Manchester United Mr Glazer, are the fans just customers to you Mr Glazer, she asked. She could have added 'like they are to Sky' but didn't as he drove away indifferent to her query and in total silence except for the throaty sound of his motor.

That came on the back of Rory McIlroy condemning the new billion euro Premier Golf League (PGL), an18-tournament world tour for which the Saudi 'Team of Negotiators' have opened Aladdin's cave and asked some of the top names to help themselves.

McIlroy has backed the PGA's threat to ban players who sign up for the PGL with the BBC reporting that 11 millionaires including the world number one Dustin Johnson and Olympic champion Justin Rose are being offered contracts worth $30-$50 million to play.

One notable difference between the golf billion and the soccer billions, is the soccer Super League, which imploded, was simple greed while the proposed golf tour is part of Saudi's pause reality policy.

Not wishing to nitpick but the rep of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) took a bit of a dint when his men lured, strangled and dismembered journalist and arch critic of the regime Jamal Khashoggi in their embassy in Turkey in 2018.

That, at least, is what a declassified US intelligence report said, that MBS was ultimately responsible for the murder.

Oil-rich Saudi has invested billions in sporting events all over the world and at home with human rights organisation Grant Liberty detailing in a report that came out last month the kingdom's largesse including their $650 million 10-year deal with Formula1.

For the first time the port city of Jeddah will host a race, when the circuit careens around in December. The House of Saud knows only too well that if there is a choice between watching Yemen burn or Mercedes and Ferraris going around hairpin bends, people will look at the cars.

Supersized cheques

If they have enough sporting distractions with supersized cheques for the participants in F1, heavyweight boxing with Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, UFC, a $145 million three-year deal with the Spanish Footballing Association, $33m to host the Arabian Masters snooker event or a $500 million 10-year deal with World Wrestling Entertainment, then the matter of genocide, or is it crimes against humanity, in a small corner of Africa may go entirely unnoticed. That's the gift of sport.

If it's optics they are looking for, why not have a picture of a grinning Johnson, the Saudi International Champion for 2021, holding the Saudi Trophy at the Royal Greens Golf and Country club, which you should know, boasts panoramic views of the Red Sea coast. That tournament went out to 350 million homes.

The fly in the ointment, for Saudi ‘sportswashing’ is the kingdom’s recidivist nature. They just can’t help themselves in the human rights department. If you have come from generations of believing that some lives are more important than others by virtue of gender, nationality or being born across the road from the palace, it’s hard to change.

In that mode MBS launched the Kingdom’s “Vision2030” masterplan five years ago. It was a transformational strategic plan intended to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic dependence on oil.

Unfortunately, according to Liberty Grant, the plan that would change the Kingdom socially as well as economically, was followed by a crackdown on dissent, the arrest of feminist activists and religious clerics.

It added the Yemen war has killed over 100,000 people with observers estimating that two-thirds of those killed came to be dead because of Saudi’s aggressive airstrikes. So, let’s play golf.

Reports say the PGL could be made up of four-golfer teams that compete against each other with $30 million or more plus an ownership aspect and has been laid out in front of players like DeChambeau, Rose, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, DJ and Phil Mickelson reportedly offered $100 million. It's massive. It's compelling. It's new and we're not talking about Yemen.

Ethical arrangements

I’m not a politician, I’m a golfer, said Rose when he played in the Saudi event in 2019. Quite the point, although in golf where there are binding ethical arrangements that determine how players conduct themselves on the course, it wouldn’t take a massive leap to apply similarly rigorous reflection when asked to front a deeply cynical marketing plan.

The Saudis are not buying Boffin DeChambeau’s swing or his 400-yard drives. They are not buying Fury’s ability to climb off the canvas and win a fight.

Perhaps Rose doesn’t see it, although McIlroy does. The House of Saud are buying his reputation. They are purchasing his clean-cut image and his easy smile and his Olympic gold medal from Rio.

They are, as Mr Glazer might see the Manchester United fans, customers buying the reputations of the world’s best loved sports stars for one reason only, to obscure a human rights record that’s not only poor but obscene. It doesn’t take a politician to work that out.