Sportswashing at Its Worst: Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf League

Saudi Arabia — in the news for cutting oil production and pushing up the price of gas — is also making headlines for perhaps a more unusual reason: golf.

After a rollout last year hobbled by controversy, LIV — the Saudi Arabia-based golf league — is making a stronger debut this year. With 14 tournaments scheduled and half of those in the United States, the new league is poised to compete with the PGA.

LIV is only the kingdom’s latest foray into professional sports.

The Saudi national soccer team upset Argentina at the World Cup last year. The third Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, a Formula One race, was held in Jeddah. And more recently, the country’s Al-Nassr soccer team signed international superstar Christiano Ronaldo for a contract worth $500 million.

Boosters might welcome Saudi participation — and oil money — in global sporting events. But critics call it “sportswashing” — an effort to use splashy sporting events to distract from human rights violations.

Meanwhile, the country is making interesting moves diplomatically. The Saudi government recently signed a Chinese-brokered deal re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran. Details are thin, but many hope it might pave the way for an end to Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen, whose ruling faction is aligned with Iran.

It’s no coincidence that all this is happening at the same time.

Saudi Arabia — a longtime powerbroker in the world economy because of its vast oil reserves — has emerged in the past decade with new political power under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, or MBS.

Saudi Arabia opened this new phase with bombastic and belligerent acts. The kingdom hosted then-President Donald Trump in 2017, culminating in a bizarre photo of Trump, King Salman and Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi holding their hands over a glowing orb.

The invasion of Yemen was carried out by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. The coalition has notoriously bombed bridges, civilian infrastructure, a school bus filled with Yemeni children, and even hospitals. According to the United Nations, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

And there’s been repression of dissident citizens of the kingdom, including the torture of women’s rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The abuses have been atrocious. They also have not achieved the kingdom’s objectives.

The Saudi war not only brought death and misery to Yemen — it also failed to supplant the ruling Houthis. Meanwhile, the murder of Khashoggi and the abuse of other critics marred MBS’s attempted branding as a young, progressive reformer. So the kingdom is rebranding. MBS is undertaking a huge effort to diversify the Saudi economy — making it less dependent on the world oil market — and improving its tourism and entertainment sectors in a strategic plan called Saudi Vision 2030.

That’s where sportswashing comes in.

Unfortunately, establishing itself as a player in sports hasn’t ended the rights abuses. The Saudi government killed 81 people in a mass executionjust two weeks before its second Grand Prix last year. LIV’s inaugural season was held the same year.

If any good comes of the LIV tournaments, perhaps it’s the growing attention to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Family members of 9/11 victims protested a New Jersey LIV tournament last year. Activists against the war in Yemen protested another in Massachusetts. And there will likely be more demonstrations this year.

Why should Americans concern themselves with Saudi Arabia’s rights record? Because our own government is enabling the worst abuses.

After all, the kingdom has carried out the war in Yemen with U.S. weapons, diplomatic support and intelligence. The assassins who killed Khashoggi were trained by a company in Arkansas. And Riyadh has become a preferred destination for retired American generals and admirals, who make massive salaries consulting for the rising military power.

An end to these transactions is long overdue.

Professional golf may be an unlikely setting for interrogating Saudi practices and U.S. foreign policy. But it’s crucial for the abusive governments of the world to know that challenging their abuses is always fair game.