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Saudis lure pro golfers with bags of cash to help 'sportswash' their image

The LIV tournament kicked off last weekend with nothing much good coming out of it other than bigger bank accounts for the players.

Analysis | Washington Politics

"They're scary motherf***ers to get involved with. …We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. …They execute people over there for being gay,” professional golfer Phil Mickelson said of the Saudi dictatorship that is financing LIV, a new golf tour that hopes to “supercharge the game of golf” and rival the PGA tour.

But, through this Saudi financing, the LIV events offer golfers payouts that dwarf anything the PGA tour offers. So, despite Mickelson’s candid words about one of the most repressive regimes in the world he, along with 47 other professional golfers, agreed to participate in the first-ever LIV golf tournament this past weekend in London, competing directly with a PGA Tour event in Canada. How did things go at the LIV event? Not well.

The trouble for LIV started just after the event began, when the PGA commissioner announced that Mickelson and every golfer competing alongside him, was suspended from the PGA Tour. The next day, American golfers involved with LIV, including Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Kevin Na, and Patrick Reed were sent a letter from the 9/11 victims’ families calling on the golfers to sever ties with the Saudi-backed event because, “When you partner with the Saudis, you become complicit with their whitewash, and help give them the reputational cover they so desperately crave—and are willing to pay handsomely to manufacture.”

The media storm surrounding the LIV event was coupled with less than extraordinary golf on the course. Mickelson, who had previously earned a whopping 45 PGA tour victories, finished a dismal 34th and, tellingly, the winner of the first LIV tournament, Charl Schwartzel, was ranked 126th in the world and hadn’t won any golf event in six years

All of this led Rory McIlroy, the third ranked golfer in the world, who won the PGA tour event in Canada only after a heated contest with other top-ranked golfers, to declare that the PGA event was “certainly the best atmosphere of any golf tournament going on this week.”

But, for the Saudi monarchy, LIV isn’t really about entertainment, it’s about “sportswashing,” the term used to describe authoritarian powers’ attempts to use international sports to white-wash their otherwise abhorrent reputations. Misanthropic regimes have been sportswashing for centuries; Roman gladiators being one of the earliest examples. In the 21st century, the Saudis are certainly not the only authoritarian regime to turn to sports to whitewash their misdeeds — the Qataris are doing it with the World Cup later this year, the Chinese did it with the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics, and the Emiratis, Russians, and others do it every year by owning some of the world’s best soccer teams. 

For the Saudi monarchy, sportswashing is a key part of its Vision 2030 plan, which hopes to remake the monarchy within the next decade. According to some estimates they’ve already spent more than $1.5 billion on sportswashing efforts, with much more work to come. By 2030 the Saudis hope to have 13 public golf courses in the Kingdom, up from just five today. The Saudis are engaging in a rash of other sportswashing activities, including WWE wrestling, Formula-1 car racing, and they’ve even tried bringing professional surfing to a country that, just four years ago, barred a seven year old child from surfing there.

Saudi Arabia’s enablers, including their lobbyists and public relations professionals, are a key part of these sportswashing campaigns. The public relations firms they hire make connections at ESPN and the World Surf League, for example. And, their lobbyists distribute propaganda promoting these sportswashing events.

To turn the tide on sportswashing’s influence, the costs of participating in it must be seen as being higher than the admittedly lucrative payouts that can come from it. Athletes must be educated about the brutal dictatorships they’re considering taking a paycheck from and cautioned against being used as geopolitical pawns in Saudi and other authoritarian governments’ attempts to sportswash their images. We must also chastise the other individuals and organizations enabling these sportswashing campaigns, including the businesses profiting from these dictator dollars — like the WWE, Formula-1, and others — and the lobbyists promoting them in the United States

Unfortunately, only in rare exceptions, like the PGA Tour suspending the LIV players, does any of this happen. Instead, as a Guardian editorial explained, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, “The brutal regime has got sportswashing down to a tee, and the west is more than willing to be its caddie.”

Golf - The inaugural LIV Golf Invitational - Centurion Club, Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Britain - June 9, 2022 Team Hy Flyers Phil Mickelson of the U.S. shakes hands with Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan after the first round Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
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