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Saudi sportswashing stonewalls the Senate

Saudi Arabia is doubling down on the veil of secrecy surrounding its attempt to effectively control the international game of golf.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Late Wednesday, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal sent a letter admonishing the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) for refusing to testify before — or provide documents to — the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Investigations, which is looking into the proposed merger of LIV Golf, the PGA Tour, and the DP World Tour that is being bankrolled by the PIF.

Blumenthal, who chairs the committee, did not mince words about the Saudi regime's lack of transparency.

“PIF cannot have it both ways: if it wants to engage with the United States commercially, it must be subject to United States law and oversight,” the Democratic senator wrote. “That oversight includes this Subcommittee’s inquiry.”

What are the Saudis trying to hide? While we might not know the full extent for some time, when two PGA Tour officials testified before Blumenthal’s committee last month we learned of at least one goal of this Saudi sports-grab: censorship. The PGA officials confirmed that the interim merger agreement includes a non-disparagement clause, which prohibits PGA officials, and possibly even players, from saying “defamatory remarks” about the tyrannical Saudi regime. 

In short, the Saudis are engaging in what’s known as sportswashing — using sponsorship of athletic events to launder their reputation. They’d prefer if Americans forgot the Saudi government's involvement in 9/11, the brutal murder of Washington Post contributor and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, or the Saudi military using U.S.-made weapons to bomb a wedding and school bus in Yemen.

Instead, when we hear “Saudi Arabia,” they’d prefer we think about LIV Golf ambassador Phil Mickelson sinking a long putt and, of course, forget that before Mickelson took an estimated $200 million from the Saudi regime, he described them as “scary motherfuckers.”

The Saudis’ bid to effectively take over golf is part of a much broader Saudi influence operation in the U.S. that seeks to impact U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. On the economic front this influence includes massive investments in the gaming industry and the tech sector, including X (formerly Twitter), where a former employee was convicted of spying on Saudi dissidents using the platform.

In the entertainment arena, the Kingdom is attempting to woo Hollywood and the arts community in addition to massive investments in other sports, like soccer, Formula 1 racing, the WWE, and, of course, golf. At the center of this wheel of influence in the U.S. is the Saudi lobby — a collection of some two dozen lobbying and public relations firms that work to coordinate these seemingly disparate influence efforts, in addition to laundering the Saudis’ reputation in the U.S. and pushing U.S. foreign policy in decidedly pro-Saudi directions, like paving the way for tens of billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom. 

While sportswashing might be one of the newest weapons in this Saudi influence operation, it is leaning on a staple of the Kingdom’s efforts: secrecy and deception. Whether it’s tricking veterans into lobbying against families of 9/11 victims or the Saudi Embassy helping Saudi citizens accused of crimes in the U.S. flee the country, the Saudi monarchy has done its dirtiest deeds in the dark.

Saudi sportswashing isn’t happening in an international vacuum either, as authoritarian regimes learn from each others’ influence operations in the U.S. After China proved it could effectively silence the human rights concerns of the NBA and its players, Saudi Arabia and Qatar began investing heavily in U.S. sports. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is why sports is the next frontier of foreign influence in America. 

And that is why every other authoritarian regime in the world is watching to see how the U.S. responds to a takeover of one of the most popular sports in America. If the U.S., once again, stands idly by as an authoritarian regime launches a new influence operation in the U.S. the Saudi takeover of golf will become a blueprint for other dictators and send a clear message: If you want to muzzle America, bet on sports.

Anne Wodenshek and Tara Strobert-Nolan, who lost their husbands on 9/11, listen during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Captiol Hill to examine the planned PGA Tour-LIV Golf merger, in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
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