Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Sportswashing” Strategy: A Closer Look

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has openly embraced accusations of “sportswashing” as a means to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image on the global stage. In a recent interview with Fox News, the crown prince expressed his willingness to continue using sportswashing tactics if it meant boosting the country’s GDP by 1% or more. Despite criticism from various quarters, bin Salman remains determined to pursue this strategy, aiming for a substantial increase in the economic growth rate.

The term “sportswashing” refers to the alleged use of sports investments as a means to gain political influence and improve a country’s reputation. Critics argue that Saudi Arabia has been utilizing sports investments, particularly in golf and soccer, not only to repair its tarnished image resulting from human rights abuses but also to exert influence on a global scale. The crown prince’s open support for sportswashing raises concerns about the ethical implications of this practice.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has significantly escalated its investments in the realm of sports. The country has acquired stakes in Saudi soccer clubs and secured deals with internationally renowned players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. These high-profile signings reportedly involved staggering sums of up to $175 million. Additionally, the country has successfully attracted top golfers like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, enticing them away from the PGA Tour to play for LIV Golf, an emerging rival organization.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), under Crown Prince Mohammed’s control, has played a pivotal role in supporting Saudi soccer clubs and LIV Golf. With a diverse portfolio ranging from electric vehicles to entertainment, the fund’s worth has exceeded $700 billion, growing from $528 billion in 2021, according to Reuters. Such substantial investments underscore the kingdom’s commitment to utilizing sportswashing as a means to reshape its global image.

The proposed merger between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour has faced widespread scrutiny. Critics argue that the deal, announced in June, is intended, in part, to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. However, concerns extend beyond image rehabilitation to national security implications. Lawmakers have raised alarms about Saudi Arabia’s alleged ties to the 9/11 attacks, despite the Saudi government’s denial of involvement. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and Osama bin Laden, the late leader of al-Qaeda, was born in the country.

Prominent U.S. legislators have voiced skepticism about the golf merger, viewing it as a disingenuous attempt by the kingdom to divert attention from its human rights record. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee, referred to Saudi Arabia’s actions as “sportswashing” during a panel hearing in July. He highlighted the regime’s history of suppressing dissent, supporting terrorism, and engaging in conflicts such as the war in Yemen.

During the aforementioned hearing, PGA Tour officials Jimmy Dunne and Ron Price acknowledged the LIV Golf and PGA Tour merger as an existential threat. Prior to the proposed merger, LIV Golf had filed a lawsuit against the PGA Tour, alleging anticompetitive practices. In response, the PGA Tour countersued, accusing LIV Golf of stifling competition. This legal battle raised concerns about the potential loss of control for the PGA Tour.

Price underscored the seriousness of the situation, emphasizing that LIV Golf’s financial resources could have lured players away from the PGA Tour with offers ranging from billions to tens of billions of dollars. While the PGA Tour acknowledged this possibility, it ultimately sought to retain total control over its operations, highlighting the precarious position it faced in the face of LIV Golf’s ambitious intentions.

Recently, the Senate subcommittee held a second hearing on the proposed LIV Golf and PGA Tour merger. One witness, Benjamin Freeman, the director of the Democratizing Foreign Policy Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, challenged the notion that the agreement was a pure business deal. He argued that it constituted an influence operation aimed at shaping public opinion in the United States and influencing U.S. foreign policy decisions.

While the debate surrounding sportswashing and Saudi Arabia’s sports investments continues to intensify, the crown prince’s unwavering commitment to this strategy suggests that it will remain a core aspect of the kingdom’s public relations efforts. The complex interplay between politics, economics, and ethics in the realm of international sports raises significant questions about the future of sportswashing and its implications for both Saudi Arabia and the global sports community.


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