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Saudi Arabia's bid for control of the PGA isn't just about golf

As Congress begins hearings into the LIV merger, it must also reckon with Riyadh's larger effort to silence American critics with cash.

Analysis | Middle East

On July 11, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will hold a hearing on the proposed merger of PGA Tours with the Saudi government-owned LIV Golf. As committee chair Senator Blumenthal explained, the hearing will seek to “uncover what went into the PGA Tour’s deal with the Saudi Public Investment Fund and what the Saudi takeover means for the future of this cherished American institution and our national interest.”

The hearing itself is an important acknowledgement that the national security implications of this merger go well beyond the business of sports. What’s at stake isn’t merely the future of golfing, or even concerns raised by foreign ownership of a national sporting institution, but the drip, drip, drip acquisition of our country’s political, social, cultural, and economic assets by a ruthless dictatorship, headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.

We still don’t know exactly how the new golfing entity created by the merger will be governed, what its ownership structure will look like, or for how much the board is selling off PGA Tours. We do know that Saudi government’s $650 billion Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by MBS and effectively serving as his personal kitty, is doing the buying, and that the new entity will be chaired by MBS’s right-hand man and PIF governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan. Dodging public scrutiny, al-Rumayyan, the chairman-to-be of the new entity, has declined a request to appear at the hearing, citing “scheduling conflicts.”

It was only due to leaks during the LIV-PGA-PIV litigation that we learned of Saudi’s 93 percent ownership of LIV Golf and responsibility for all of the franchise’s liabilities. This includes LIV Golf’s undisclosed millions in payments to Donald Trump’s golf resorts, raising serious national security implications of their own, effectively allowing the dictator of a foreign country to launder payments to a former American president — and now again presidential candidate.

While in power, Trump very dutifully promoted close ties with Saudi Arabia, vetoed efforts to block arms sales to the country, and most significantly, protected MBS while in power, boasting about “saving his ass” from accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. To no one’s surprise, the Department of Justice is now investigating Trump’s ties to the Saudi fund and LIV as part of its prosecution of Trump’s theft of classified documents, which reportedly include classified information valuable to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government’s total acquisition of U.S. golf is just the tip of the iceberg in its unprecedented investments, including significant ownership stakes, over the past few years in American economic, cultural and social assets, including technology, banking, defense, sports, entertainment, gaming, news, film, and arts. These investments will naturally expand Saudi influence and control in the American economy.

This isn’t just about an expanded capacity to “sportswash” or “artswash,” distracting Americans from the Saudi government’s atrocious human rights record. These stakes give the Saudi government much more direct leverage, with power to block any repeat American protest and withdrawal from engagement with Saudi Arabia, such as what happened in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. When new abuses emerge, as they inevitably will under the country’s reckless, sociopathic dictator, many American businesses, celebrities, sports stars, and institutions will be forced to remain silent, just as Saudi citizens are, bowing to their paymaster.

More dangerous still is Saudi Arabia’s outright purchase of power in our political system. While the defense industry has long been renowned for influence in government via its revolving door employment of former officials, it’s no match for Saudi Arabia’s spending power, with eye-popping PIF payouts to former Trump administration officials, including $2 billion to Trump’s son-in-law and former senior adviser Jared Kushner, and $1 billion to former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Defense industries also can’t match the salaries and business deals that Saudi Arabia is paying to hundreds of former U.S. military officials, including 15 former U.S. generals and admirals serving as “consultants” since 2015. This is hardly a Republicans-only problem: which Biden administration official is willing to pledge that they won’t ever take a paycheck from Saudi Arabia when they leave office?

The Senate hearing would do well to expand its investigation for a more holistic scrutiny of the national security implications of all these Saudi acquisitions and the impact they will have on the independence and freedom of American businesses, institutions and government officials to make decisions and take actions that serve our own interests and values.

The message that Saudi Arabia — and other wealthy dictatorships in the Gulf, like the UAE and Bahrain — is sending us, the message too many Americans have been only too eager to accept, is that our economy is for sale, our institutions are for sale, and our government is for sale. The ultimate win for a dictator like MBS is to show the world that he can buy our democracy. It’s up to our government to take the actions and pass the laws we need to save it.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends an Arab summit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
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