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The Saudi Golf Tour Is Blatant ‘Sportswashing’
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The Saudi Golf Tour Is Blatant ‘Sportswashing’

And those signing up to play are demonstrating their cynicism about human rights.

From June 9 to 11, LIV Golf staged its first tournament, at the Centurion Club, outside London. The winner was Charl Schwartzel, the South African star (who won the 2011 Masters).

“LIV Golf”? Yes, otherwise known as “the Saudi Golf Tour.” It is funded by the PIF—the public investment fund, or sovereign wealth fund—of the Saudi government. The chairman of the fund is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who effectively functions as dictator of the country. The CEO of the new tour is Greg Norman, the veteran Australian golfer, aka the Great White Shark.

What does “LIV” stand for? It is not an acronym. It is a Roman numeral, alluding to the fact that tournaments on the tour will be played in three rounds, or 54 holes. Traditional tournaments, such as those on the PGA Tour, are four rounds, or 72 holes.

These details aside, the Saudi government is engaged in “sportswashing.” This is the practice whereby bad actors try to clean up their reputations through involvement in sports. The Chinese are master sportswashers, as they have proved in their Olympic Games, and the Saudis are pretty good at it too. In addition to their golf league, they own a Premier League soccer club, the one in Newcastle.

In its inaugural season, the Saudi Golf League will have eight tournaments, two of them at courses owned by ex-President Donald Trump: his club in Bedminster, N.J., and his club in Miami. The PGA Tour is none too pleased about the new league, and has made players choose: “You can play with us or with them, but not both.” 

What’s the attraction of the Saudi Golf League, for players? Moolah, lotsa moolah. The purse for the initial tournament at the Centurion Club was $25 million. The concurrent event on the PGA Tour—the Canadian Open—had a purse of a comparatively measly $8.7 million. But that’s not the big attraction for the players.

No, the big attraction is that they get guaranteed money from the Saudis: money for just showing up, just for participating. There is no “cut”—no elimination from the tournament—in these LIV Golf 54-holers. You get a good chunk of change no matter how well you play.

If you’re really big—a big name, a big draw—you get a great deal of money. Phil Mickelson is getting a reported $200 million for joining the new league. Dustin Johnson, who until recently was the No. 1 player in the world, is getting $125 million.

There were 42 players in the first tournament. Many of them were golfers of a certain age—on the other side of the hill, with their best earning years behind them. Examples of such players are Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. Others, however, are in their prime, such as Johnson. Soon to join the tour is Bryson DeChambeau, very much in his prime, and a big star in the game.

The biggest star of all, Tiger Woods, declined to jump from the PGA Tour to the Saudi one. He turned down close to $1 billion from the Saudis. “Mind-blowingly enormous,” is the way Greg Norman put it. “We’re talking about high nine digits,” he said of the deal that Woods declined. Jack Nicklaus—who was Woods before Woods, if you will—was also offered a deal. According to Nicklaus himself, that deal would have brought him “in excess of $100 million.” All that money to play, at age 82? No, to have essentially Norman’s job.

Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish star, has stayed put—stayed with the PGA Tour. “I don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions,” he said. Jon Rahm, the great Spaniard, has done the same. “I don’t do this for the money,” he said. “They throw numbers at you, and that’s supposed to impress people. I’m in this game for the love of golf and the love of the game and to become a champion.”

All very high-minded. But you might say that McIlroy and Rahm can afford to turn down guaranteed money. Other players are unable to resist the temptation. “I need to do what’s best for me and my family,” is a common line.

At a press conference before the inaugural tournament, two veteran players, Lee Westwood (49) and Ian Poulter (46), were asked whether they would play in a tournament hosted by Vladimir Putin, if the money were right. Neither would comment.

Greg Norman was asked about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (Khashoggi, as you remember, was the journalist and dissident who was tortured, murdered, then chopped up with a bone saw in October 2018. U.S. intelligence determined that the murder was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman.) Norman answered, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”

Mickelson has been very honest about the Saudis—in comments to a writer that he claimed, after they were published, were supposed to be off the record. “They’re scary motherf***ers to get involved with,” said Mickelson. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.” He went on to say that he wanted to use the Saudi tour as leverage against the PGA Tour, to effect changes that he considered desirable.

When his comments came to light, much of the world came down on his head. His longtime sponsor, KPMG, the accounting giant, dropped him. Because of his Machiavellian designs? Because of his amorality with respect to the Saudis? KPMG has three offices in Saudi Arabia. Mickelson’s real offense, surely, was to have been indiscreet with the truth.

Personally, I am pro-competition. I believe in markets, including in golf tours. I am anti-monopolistic. But I choke on the Saudi aspect. If you’ll forgive me, the more you know—the more you know about the Saudis and their practices—the less you can enjoy a Saudi golf league, even with such lovable rogues as Mickelson in it.

Over the years, I have written of many Saudi political prisoners, who are tortured, sometimes to death. I have interviewed several family members—wives, brothers, sisters—campaigning for their loved ones’ release. They do so at considerable risk to themselves, by the way. The Saudi government does not take kindly to human-rights campaigns. And it has no hesitation about targeting people on foreign soil, to say nothing of Saudi soil.

Perhaps I could bring up one case.

Last month, I interviewed Areej al-Sadhan, at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. Her brother, Abdulrahman, is a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. The Sadhans grew up between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Abdulrahman went to Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, graduating in 2013. He then went to Saudi Arabia to begin a career. A compassionate sort, he joined the Red Crescent (as the Red Cross is known in Muslim-majority countries).

On Twitter, Abdulrahman made some criticisms of the government. He is an advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights. The government, not so much. He did his tweeting anonymously—but his cover was blown, and he was seized from his office. He was then “disappeared,” unable to contact his family for two years.

But the family received reports from relatives of other political prisoners. Abdulrahman was being tortured, obviously—that’s what the Saudi authorities do. They were subjecting him to the usual repertoire: electric shocks; sleep deprivation; suspension by feet; beatings. But they added a twist. As they smashed the prisoner’s hand, they taunted, “Is  this the one you tweet with?”

In a secret and sham trial, in April 2021, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years in prison, to be followed by a 20-year travel ban. The government is loath for its victims to be in a position to tell their stories.

Many people are cynical about human rights, often in the guise of being worldly, or realistic. “It’s a big bad world out there,” they say. “Can’t follow the fall of every sparrow.” In early 2017, Bill O’Reilly said to the new president, Donald Trump, “Putin is a killer.” The president responded, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

In a recent interview, Greg Norman made a similar remark. Asked about Saudi Arabia and its horrors, he said, “Every country has got a cross to bear.”

After the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump was asked who ought to be held accountable. He answered, “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place.” Later, talking with Bob Woodward, Trump said, “I saved his ass,” referring to Mohammed bin Salman. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.”

Next month, President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia, hat in hand, as America is pinched for oil.

Democracies often need to have relations, including alliances, with dictatorships. We could talk about the U.S.–Saudi alliance in another piece (or book or series of books). But what of individuals? According to reports, Jared Kushner’s private-equity firm has $2.5 billion—$2 billion of which comes from the Saudis. Isn’t such a person in a position to get his money from other sources? Less nasty ones?

Elon Musk is the richest man in the world. Does he really have to open up a new Tesla showroom and office in the Xinjiang region of China, as he did earlier this year? Xinjiang is where the Chinese government has herded the Uyghur people into concentration camps. The U.S. State Department has designated China’s persecution of the Uyghurs a genocide.

I am all for making money. But do the golfers really have to make money off the Saudis? None of them has ever been in danger of going on the bread line, so far as I’m aware.

In my experience, people either care about human rights or they don’t. (Some care about them selectively, depending on the victimizers and the victims.) I often have occasion to quote a Lyle Lovett song: “It may be no big deal to you, but it’s a very big deal to me.”

Jay Nordlinger is a a senior editor of National Review, a fellow of the National Review Institute, and music critic of The New Criterion.