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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Silence will be deafening at Saudi Ladies International

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It’s no surprise that Amnesty International has come out this week to slam the “irony” of a high profile Ladies golf tournament being celebrated in Saudi Arabia given the country’s horrendous on-going oppression of women.

The Ladies European Tour was all smiles on Monday to announce two events for the region in November and lauded the unveiling as a “landmark moment for women’s sport in the Kingdom”. That was without mentioning the Saudi regime’s human rights record, obviously, described by Amnesty International as among other things, “heinous”.

Never mind landmark moments for women’s sport in Saudi; 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 in late 2018 that authorities granted women permission to drive, and any woman brave enough to speak out against the oppression of their basic human rights to date has been arrested and labelled a “traitor” by a government unashamedly practicing censorship against peaceful protest daily.

To this day, these brave women remain inexcusably detained behind bars, their fate, and their safety, totally unclear. Which is why the Ladies European Tour will have to do much better than suggest there is anything landmark about this most inappropriate visit, unless of course they’re intending to use their global platform to speak out in solidarity with Saudi women against the raft of human rights violations Saudi Arabia is practicing?

“With leading Saudi women’s rights activists currently languishing behind bars, there’s an unmistakable irony to the spectacle of Saudi Arabia throwing open its heavily-watered greens to the world’s leading women golfers like this,” Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, told the Guardian.

“Under the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a major sports-washing drive, attempting to use the glamour and prestige of big-money sporting events as a PR tool to distract from its abysmal human rights record.”

Indeed, far from solely a women’s golf issue, the sight of sport’s highest paid male stars accepting massive appearance fees to compete in the desert is just as disappointing with Majed Al Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi, confirming this week that the Saudi International will return early next year for its third instalment, where Graeme McDowell will likely travel to defend.

But if you’re a human – never mind a golfer – you’d want to check the batteries in your moral compass if a trip to Saudi is on your radar in the coming weeks and months. Tours may be under financial pressure, now more than ever with Covid, to accept an easy buck in times of trouble but the money comes from somewhere and in the case of Saudi, its source is as seedy as it gets.

I’ve cited this story in a similar article before but it can never be retold enough. Memories are short, even if it was only on October 2, 2018 that a stark 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. Is this really the place we want to grow the game?

“It’s almost exactly two years since the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” added Allen. “It’s clear the Saudi authorities would prefer that golf handicaps are discussed this week, not their whitewash over Khashoggi’s killing.

“Every golfer considering whether to compete in Saudi Arabia ought to take a proper look at the human rights situation in the country and be prepared to speak out.

“We’d urge any golfer who makes the trip to Saudi Arabia in November to use her profile to help highlight human rights issues in the country, not least with an expression of solidarity with jailed women’s human rights defenders like Loujain al-Hathloul or Nassima al-Sada.”

There is a major opportunity here for some of the biggest names in European golf to use their platform for good and speak out against injustice. Given the following company line from the LET, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath:

“We are always looking to grow the game in new markets and add to our schedule and we are confident that the Saudi Ladies International and the Saudi Ladies Team International will be a fantastic experience for our players” – Alexandra Armas, the chief executive of the LET.



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