On the surface, the emergence of an inclusive sport in a region previously bereft of it would be something to celebrate. In Saudi Arabia’s case, the moral question surrounding the European Tour, and now the Ladies European Tour’s apparent desperation to grow the game in the area, is quite sickening once you dig a little deeper.
This Thursday, the Saudi International will return for a second year with a whole host of high-profile players taking time out of their busy schedules to incorporate a charitable trip to Saudi in a selfless effort to “grow the game”. On March 19th, the Ladies European Tour, a Tour that just announced record Tour prize pots tallying almost €18 million this season, will follow suit when the first ever professional women’s tournament will take place at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.
Sounds great, doesn’t it – plugging the gender gap whilst promoting the game? But forgive me for not personally travelling to LET HQ to congratulate them on such a “ground-breaking” announcement. Somehow, I can’t envisage this euphoric event having any impact on the women of Saudi Arabia whatsoever.
The country’s current guardianship system is so backward that women need permission from fathers, brothers and even sons just to make a variety of basic life decisions. It was only last year that authorities granted women permission to drive. Sorry for not believing that the stars of the Ladies European Tour are going to carry one ounce of influence over a government that has repeatedly squashed the voices of women – and men – when it didn’t suit their own archaic narrative.
In fact, it was just before “The Kingdom” granted women permission to drive on June 24, 2018 that the government arrested a number of outspoken Saudi women’s rights activists for having an opinion. The women were denounced as “traitors” for their peaceful, but critical views of a government unashamedly practicing censorship and today, still inexcusably detained behind bars, their fate remains unclear. But please, by all means send in the colourful stormtroopers of the LET to save the day. Have these players even bothered to research what they’re promoting?
And don’t get me wrong, because the men are just as bad. How players as filthy rich as Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka can’t read a moral compass and resist the urge of the dollar for one week a year is beyond disappointing – the former even bypassing his home favourite status at the celebrated Waste Management Phoenix Open in favour of a cultural excursion to the desert this week. Even Ireland’s most popular golfer, Shane Lowry has taken the bizarre decision to debut at this year’s tournament despite endless opportunities to add to his schedule elsewhere as the Open Champion.
Rory McIlroy comes in for his fair share of criticism for saying the wrong thing at times, Tiger Woods even more so for his questionable levels of empathy but both, on moral grounds, chose to bypass the tournament in their 2020 schedules, despite supposedly being offered upwards of $2.5million just to show up.
And make no mistake about it, the issue of morality cannot be ignored here, nor the dirt on the hands of those willing to write such obnoxious cheques in a selfless effort to “grow the game”.
You only have to rewind the clock to October 2, 2018 for a reminder of what this government, the one rolling out the red carpet (appropriately stained) to the European Tour’s men and women, is capable. On that day, a US-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, a long-time critic of the Saudi government, walked into the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Prior to entering the building that day, Khashoggi gave his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz two mobile phones, telling her to call the Turkish President Erdogan if he didn’t return. After waiting more than 10 hours, and even coming back the following morning, there was no sign of Khashoggi. He never came out alive.
Saudi officials claim the journalist was murdered in a “rogue operation” by agents paid to persuade him to return to the desert. Turkish officials, according to a BBC report, insist “the agents acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government”, with the United Nations concluding that Khashoggi was “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible”. The same state of Saudi Arabia that the game of golf, while all this was going on, clung to like a dog in heat in an effort to extract a dollar.
“Heinous” is how Amnesty International describes the Saudi regime’s human rights record, something the Tours have blissfully omitted from their press releases as they continue to ill-advisedly pat each other on the back for the apparent coup. It’s very easy for the European Tour to hide behind a rhetoric that events such as the Saudi International are growing the game of golf, but you’d wonder who the beneficiaries of such growth are – or is it simply a case of the rich getting richer regardless of those who suffer behind the morally questionable façade?
When you learn of the ordered murder of a fellow journalist who was killed for simply doing his job, it makes you wonder how golf can associate itself with such blatant and disgusting corruption. Perhaps if media outlets turn a blind eye to both tournaments, then this notion that our love can be bought, regardless of the source of the dollar, might be squashed as ruthlessly as the women’s rights campaigners who have had their voices mercilessly silenced in Saudi Arabia for years.