The Professional Golfers Association (PGA) has handed over the keys to its kingdom, in this instance to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In a controversial deal, the PGA announced this week that it has agreed to merge with LIV Golf, a well-financed competitor which is underwritten by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, an entity controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known by his initials, MBS. The terms of the deal haven’t been clarified publicly. What is clear is that the Saudis view the arrangement as part of their larger effort to enhance their global reputation and deflect attention from the Saudi government’s poor human rights record.
Under an ambitious MBS initiative called Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia plans to invest US$64 billion in music, entertainment, sports, art, and film. It has ended its long-standing prohibition on cinemas and plans to open more than 300 movie theaters by 2030. The government’s embrace of professional sports is a key element of this strategy, including its willingness to pay top dollar for global football stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to play in the Saudi league. The merger between the PGA and LIV Golf is the most recent example of the government’s eagerness to use its ample oil revenue to secure a prominent place on the world sports stage.
While there have been some notable social reforms in Saudi Arabia since MBS assumed power in 2017, from a human rights perspective, Saudi Arabia still warrants a red card. Saudi women now have greater educational and career opportunities. The first Saudi woman astronaut and the first Saudi woman to drive an F1 race car are high-profile examples. The Saudi government has removed highly inflammatory language from middle and high school textbooks that previously denigrated Christians and Jews. MBS also has reined in the religious police who previously punished those whose actions or even appearance ran afoul of ultra-conservative Wahhabi religious doctrine.
But these positive developments are outweighed by continuing serious abuses. Since gaining power, MBS has moved to crush dissent. The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, which U.S. government officials believe MBS personally approved, is by far the most visible example. But as Human Rights Watch reported, over the last year “authorities conducted arrests of peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals, and human rights activists and sentenced people to decades-long prison terms for posting on social media. Abusive practices in detention centers, including torture and mistreatment, prolonged arbitrary detention, and asset confiscation without any clear legal process, remain pervasive.”
Many of these concerns were echoed by the U.S. State Department in its most recent country report on human rights. In Riyadh this week, Secretary of State Blinken emphasized the need for the Saudi government to expand the protection of human rights as part of its broader reform agenda.
Saudi Arabia’s role on the global stage is also cause for great concern. In Yemen, over the last eight years, Saudi security forces have taken the lead, along with a collation of other regional governments, in supporting an embattled Yemeni government in its civil war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In this deadly armed conflict in which both the Iranian and Saudi governments bear great responsibility for contributing to civilian casualties, more than 150,000 people have been killed, and, according to the United Nations, more than 225,000 others have died as a result of famine and the lack of access to health care.
More broadly, the Saudi government, which is controlled by MBS’s extended family, has played a leading role in spreading the radical Wahhabi strain of Islam throughout the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. Saudi religious charities that enjoy state sponsorship and/or financial support have spent tens of billions of dollars over the past quarter-century to export a version of political Islam that condones hatred and at times violence, against the U.S., Israel and the West.
As a senior State Department official from 2009–2013, I assessed the radicalization of students in thousands of Saudi-backed religious schools, called madrasas, in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many of these schools were preparing new generations of young people, mostly boys, to embrace a radical vision of Islam that endorses extremism and violence. While educational reform is underway in Saudi Arabia, radical Saudi teaching materials are still widely available throughout the Muslim world. In Malaysia, for example, the Saudis have funded schools and established a scholarship program for study in Saudi Arabia. As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia also has been a major recipient of Saudi proselytization, including support for schools.
And finally, while MBS’s reforms have benefitted Saudi citizens, there has been no real improvement in the treatment of the country’s migrant workers, especially low-wage construction workers from South Asia. Millions of these workers have built modern Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure, and more will come to build the proposed $500 billion Neom project, a 10,000-square-mile planned city near the Red Sea. These workers pay their own recruitment fees, often equivalent to a year’s wages or more, which they must pay back before they start receiving their monthly salaries. Once in Saudi Arabia, they work under often-harsh conditions, and live in overcrowded communal housing. There have been few meaningful reforms in any of these areas, even as neighboring Qatar has begun to introduce a number of labor reforms.
Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights continues to be poor. By joining forces with the Saudi government in such a high-profile partnership, the PGA is providing MBS with significant international credibility and respectability, which still is not warranted. In doing so the PGA risks providing MBS with cover for the government’s continuing human rights abuses. Until the Saudi government commits to undertaking additional meaningful reforms, it is premature and unwise for the PGA to risk its own reputation by consummating this ill-advised partnership.
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