On the face of it, Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in sport should be something to celebrate. An absolute monarchy moving towards more liberal ideas since 2016 having welcomed boxing, wrestling, motor racing and golf to its shores, a shift in policy seems a positive one, until you scrape a little under the surface (digging isn’t necessary here) to reveal a seedy underbelly, highlighted by a human rights record that Amnesty International describes as “heinous”.
It was just three months after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi that the European Tour cut the red ribbon on their inaugural Saudi International. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. in 2017, visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in order to attain papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancé, Hatice Cengiz. What should’ve been a routine visit to the embassy saw Khashoggi asked to return a week later to finalise the details. In the meantime, a hit squad was assembled to meet Khashoggi at his second appointment. The journalist never came out alive.
Now I realise most people see sport as an escape, and many believe it shouldn’t mix with politics, but for the European Tour to arrive to Saudi under the cloud of this killing and put up an umbrella suggesting they’re growing the game, I think it’s important to question not just Saudi’s sudden interest in sport, but exactly what change the European Tour is achieving.
Until now, the only people trying to effect true change in Saudi are its citizens and they have been severely punished for doing so. Khashoggi died for his efforts while others, protesting peacefully against injustice, find themselves detained indefinitely for speaking out.
The Ladies European Tour and its members, hell-bent on plugging the gender gap in sport, also thought it would be a good idea to add Saudi to their schedule last year. Saudi, a place where women have to seek permission from men to travel, marry, divorce, access education and medical treatment; a place where women were granted permission to drive in 2018 only for the rights activists who campaigned for such freedoms to have theirs immediately taken away. Some have reportedly been tortured while detained. Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the leading activists, was jailed for five years. How can the Ladies European Tour align their values with such levels of mistreatment?
It might be idealistic to suggest but there’s more to life than Ryder Cup points and bank balances. Even The Wire’s Omar Little said a man’s got to have a code. On Tour, some players have resisted the lure of the Saudi dollar. Rory McIlroy turned a large appearance fee to show up at Saudi because it wasn’t morally right. Meghan MacLaren said knowing what goes on in Saudi, she couldn’t support the event, not just as a golfer, but as a person.
You could argue that this isn’t on the players. It’s the Tour putting them in the awkward position of playing this week in The Kingdom. Some of them are desperate for starts, and it is their livelihoods after all. However, there’s no gun pointed to their heads either, unlike the everyday Saudi afraid to speak out against the ongoing injustices suffered under this regime.
Given events of recent weeks, how Justin Thomas was scorned for uttering a homophobic slur, it’s laughable that the Tour, in good conscience, can travel to a place where people born gay are punished with hefty fines, life in prison, and even death, simply for being themselves. Make no mistake. This isn’t about growing the game of golf. It’s about growing the bank balance of the Tour who badly need it.
It’s a low stoop, even for golf, that in order to make a quick buck, they’re contributing to the sports-washing drive of the Saudi regime, and legitimising a nation whose human rights abuses deserve anything but.