Even if golf is not your sport, the surprise announcement of a merger this week of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour and LIV Golf, a breakaway tour owned by Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund, spotlights the urgent need for human rights standards and due diligence across all sports.
Rory McIlroy, a top PGA player from Northern Ireland who had opposed the Saudi golf league, said: “I see what’s happened in other sports, I see what’s happened in other businesses, and honestly, I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that this is what’s going to happen. It’s very hard to keep up with people that have more money than anyone else.”
This is especially true when it comes to Saudi Arabia, one of the world leaders in “sportswashing.” This is the strategy of whitewashing countries’ authoritarian reputations by buying the halo of global sports competitions—a strategy also pursued by China and Russia.
The announcement for the LIV Golf/PGA merger was done behind closed doors, reversing the PGA position just a year ago that it wouldn’t partner with an egregious human rights abuser.
Golfers who opposed the merger recall the 2018 brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But Saudi human rights abuses did not stop there. In March 2022, authorities conducted the largest mass execution comprising 81 people in a day. Saudi officials continue to arrest peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals, and human rights activists. While in 2021 authorities released some women’s rights activists they had detained and tortured in 2018, they continue to subject them to suspended prison sentences and travel bans.
They also began passing draconian sentences for mild criticism. On August 9, 2022, courts in two separate cases sentenced Saudi doctoral student Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison, apparently based solely on her Twitter activity, and Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to tear the [country’s] social fabric.” Despite some reforms, Saudi officials continue to enforce a “male guardianship” system, now codified in law, requiring women to obtain permission from male relatives to get married, leave prison, or obtain some forms of sexual and reproductive health care.
The Saudi government’s strategy to sportswash its egregious human rights record through a virtual takeover of professional golf is perhaps its highest-profile win to date and sets the scene for hosting many other beloved sporting events and tours including soccer’s World Cup and the Olympics.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is a government-controlled entity itself linked to serious human rights abuses. It is controlled by Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and owns a reported 93 percent controlling share in LIV Golf. The PIF has already bought England’s Newcastle United football team and is bankrolling a huge fund to sign the world’s top soccer players to join Cristiano Ronaldo in its national league.
Saudi Arabia has also used its oil riches to buy sponsorships of Formula One, Heavyweight Boxing championships, and soccer’s 2023 Club World Cup, and harbors ambitions to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.
The PGA evidently did not consult players, fans, or others affected by this decision as required under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which covers entities like the PGA. Many affected athletes complained that they found out about the deal on social media. As Canadian pro golfer MacKenzie Hughes said, “Nothing like finding out on Twitter that we’re merging with a tour we said we’d never do that with.”
The PGA does not have in place human rights standards or background checks for entities like the PIF. Due diligence and transparent processes are urgently needed for purchases and mergers that clearly have human rights implications.
The PGA, in its legal filings originally opposing LIV Golf, made clear its executives understand the association with human rights abuses and that this harms the sport of golf: “LIV’s direct ties to the Saudi government have cast a black cloud over its events and its players,” a PGA Tour motion reads. “Fans and community members have also protested LIV’s events, including organizations seeking justice for the victims and families affected by the 9/11 attacks….The Tour will suffer irreparable reputational damage if it is forced to give a stage to players engaged with LIV and to associate the PGA Tour brand with the Saudi government’s efforts to ‘sportswash’ its deplorable reputation.”
Global sports are suddenly awash in Saudi funds, and more events are going to countries that are serious human rights abusers. Athletes may have no choice about who owns their sport, and little influence over where their tournaments are held—but they retain their rights to free speech and can publicly protest Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, detention and torture of human rights defenders and women’s rights activists.
Lewis Hamilton, who is Formula 1’s seven-time world racing champion, told reporters last year he was “not comfortable” with F1’s relationship with Saudi Arabia: “We don’t decide where we go, and I think we’re duty bound to try and do what we can,” to raise awareness about human rights violations. Hamilton raced in a rainbow helmet and spoke out in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community who lack human rights protections ahead of his dramatic victory in the first Saudi Grand Prix.
Golf is a major link in the broader Saudi Vision 2030 strategy to take over or host major sporting events—while reducing public pressure to address human rights abuses and repression in the country.
Fans and golfers should be using their power, leverage and voice to improve human rights. The Saudi government-controlled Public Investment Fund can buy the PGA golf tour, but it cannot buy the silence of athletes.
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