At a recent news conference for the new Saudi-funded LIV Golf league a reporter asked Phil Mickelson: “Isn’t there a danger that you’re also being seen as a tool of sportswashing?” The term – ‘sportswashing’ – is a relatively new term, but the strategy it represents has been employed by governments around the world, in some form or fashion, for over a century. ‘Sportswashing’ is the practice of using sports to improve one’s tarnished reputation, through hosting a sporting event, the sponsorship of sporting teams or by participation in a sport itself.
The nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been making huge investments in sports for the last decade, this includes the forthcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar; the UAE’s sponsorship rights for several football teams that include Arsenal, Real Madrid and Manchester City; Bahrain’s sponsorship of Spanish and a Parisian team to Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United and hosting of the boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz at a cost of $50 million in 2019. But Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Funds establishment of a new golf league called the LIV Golf Invitational Series in 2021, as a rival to the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA), based in the US, has seen many to claim the Gulf Nations are trying to sporstwash their human rights records. The PGA suspended the membership of players who signed up to participate in the new league, whilst Europe’s DP World Tour fined and sanctioned members who took part. The most famous defector, Phil Mickelson, admitted that the Saudis have a terrible human rights record but said this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” Human rights groups described players who have signed contracts with LIV Golf as “willing stooges of Saudi sports-washing.” But the Gulf Nations claim their sports investments are part of their plans to diversify their economies away from fossil fuels.
Bread and Circuses
The Romans utilised entertainment (circuses) to deflect their citizens’ attention away from the declining economic standards of the empire. In the Middle East, most of the nations present today are artificial creations of Britain and France and in the Arabian Peninsula the monarchies today had for centuries engaged in petty wars amongst each other. The British Empire rewarded the tribes who worked with them to secure Britain’s supply route to India and who also collaborated with them to overthrow the Ottomans, with their own new nations. The Post-WW2 situation created many challenges for these new states from Arab nationalism to the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, with the infiltration of Western ideas due to Western energy companies setting up in the region in order to bring the region’s new found oil and gas to global markets.
In Saudi Arabia the tensions between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal saw rising demands to transform the Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. In 1956, Saudi created the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, which today has more than 150 football clubs. It was set up back then to deflect the public attention away from politics. Just like the Romans, they wanted to use football as a diversion. Two annual football tournaments: the Crown Prince Cup in 1956 and the King Cup a year later were established for this.
In 1956, Saudi created the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, which today has more than 150 football clubs. It was set up back then to deflect the public attention away from politics. Just like the Romans, they wanted to use football as a diversion
However, it was the Arab Spring in 2011 that really worried the Saudi monarchy. Uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain and the possibility these could spread to the Kingdom saw them dramatically increase funding for sporting events. King Salman and the Crown Prince, Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) created the Saudi Super Cup and the Prince Muhammed bin Salman League to add to the growing list of major football events in the Kingdom.
Whilst the Gulf Nations have been marketing their investments as economic opportunities to diversify their economies, the undeniable fact is that all the Gulf Nations have long-standing and deep rooted rivalries amongst each other. The GCC when it was launched in 1981, amongst its aims was regional integration. But the historical rivalry saw them continue competing with each other. When Saudi Arabia invested in oil refineries the other Gulf Nations built similar facilities, even when economically they would never make a profit due to their small populations. This competition in the region eventually spread to building ports, luxury airlines, international airports, universities and now sports.
Qatar’s Aspire Zone, a 250-hectare sporting complex in Doha and its 2010 victory to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, triggered intense competition from Saudi Arabia and the UAE as Qatar was attracting global attention and both nations then began making huge investments in the sports world. Abu Dhabi via its Sovereign Wealth Fund and Dubai through Emirates Airlines, as well as the national carrier, Etihad acquired some of the world’s most lucrative football teams in the world. Saudi Arabia on the other hand launched an ambitious sports policy around its NEOM City project, a huge initiative under construction that features a modern new city with an ultramodern sports city. Just last year, Saudi Arabia acquired Britain’s Newcastle United with Saudi Minister of Sports Abdulaziz Bin Turki saying, “The sky’s the limit when it comes to hosting sports events.” Saudi officials have also proposed holding the FIFA World Cup every two years in the Kingdom.
Western media outlets and human rights groups accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to deflect from its human rights record. The grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi tarnished the Saudi Crown Prince’s image and there is no doubt he is on a campaign to improve his public image. There are however a few issues to consider when looking at the claim of sportswashing.
Saudi Arabia’s image has been problematic well before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has for long been viewed by much of the world as backward, conservative, the oppressor of women, supporter of terrorism as well as spreading Wahabism around the world for decades. Criticism against Saudi Arabia is not new and many of the claims are decades old and go well beyond human rights. Saudi oil exports, its biggest export, have never been viewed through the human rights lenses.
Many of Saudi Arabia’s sports investments, including the LIV Golf league, are funded through its Sovereign Investment Fund. Established back in 1971, the fund manages $480 billion in assets. Its major investments are not sports, but include the Saudi National Bank and the Saudi Telecommunication Co. The fund is also in charge of the country’s mega-development project Vision 2030, at the centre of which is the NEOM initiative. Saudi investments in LIV Golf, which total $2 billion, are part of the Vision 2030 campaign. Western companies, associations, sponsors and sports leagues can only wish they had such resources. The controversy around LIV Golf mostly stems from the fact that it has abundant financial resources that enable it to outbid its rivals in attracting the world’s best players. To put the LIV into perspective, Phil Mickelson won $94 million in total prize money over his two-decade PGA career. He is reportedly being paid upto $200 million to join the LIV! The total budget for each LIV Golf Invitational Series tournament is $25 million. Of that $25 million, $5 million will be awarded to teams while $20 million will go to the individual players. The Team Championship, which will take place during the eighth and final series event of the season, will dish out an additional $50 million. For comparison, the Masters and PGA Championship, two crown jewels of the PGA calendar, had a budget of $15 million apiece in 2022.
The controversy around LIV Golf mostly stems from the fact that it [Saudi] has abundant financial resources that enable it to outbid its rivals in attracting the world’s best players
Whilst golf is a popular sport in the developed world, unlike football, it’s seen as a luxury sport associated with the rich. LIV Golf’s real threat is in its ability to disrupt the status quo in this established industry. By attempting to attract the golf world’s best players as well as its fans and communities, LIV Golf threatens to monopolise the sport. With Saudi and its gulf rivals targeting football, entertainment and other sports they threaten the status quo across the sports world. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are reshaping the world of international sports and are looking to dominate the environment in which professional players compete.
Saudi Arabia is going through a very public reform and has projected its modernisation as an attempt to move away from the dominance of oil to other industries in parallel to broader administrative, cultural and economic reforms. Economic development has never been built upon sports as it cannot stimulate a broader economy. Saudi’s Vision 2030 doesn’t present any new or innovative plans to transform Saudi Arabia into a dynamic economy. The project’s three main themes – creating a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation, are far-fetched in a country where tribal divisions are rising and expatriates continue to dominate all productive economic sectors. The Kingdom is focusing on activities related to tourism and entertainment, including sports, that do not require the participation of Saudis themselves. Saudi Arabia may dominate the golf industry, but this will not involve Saudi’s and will not create any reforms. In the end, reforms in the GCC is really the 21st century attempt to maintain the monarchies in the region in light of new demographic, economic and social trends.