Saudi sports drive poses moral dilemma for athletes

Rui Vieira/AP
Manchester City's Rodrigo Hernández Cascante (right) challenges Newcastle's Allan Saint-Maximin during the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Manchester City on Aug.21, 2022. Both City and Newcastle are owned by Gulf kingdoms.
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There’s a new kid on the international sports block, and he’s throwing his weight around.

Saudi Arabia is muscling its way onto the scene with investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars in golf, soccer, boxing, and Formula One racing. That poses a dilemma for athletes and sports administrators. How do they square the eye-watering sums on offer with the Gulf Kingdom’s notorious abuses of human rights?

Why We Wrote This

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Saudi Arabia’s ruler is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in international sports. Should teams take cash from the serial human rights abuser, or take a moral stand?

It seems simple enough. Do they take a moral stand or do they take the cash? But there are wrinkles.

For one thing, Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, whose state investment fund is behind the money, is undoubtedly a ruthless autocrat, but he is also a reformer. The U.S. State Department accuses his regime of forcibly disappearing and torturing opponents, but he has expanded social and economic freedoms and begun to loosen the shackles on Saudi women.

At the same time, “sportswashing” – improving one’s image by association with popular pastimes – is scarcely a new phenomenon.

Some say that means they should welcome Saudi investment. Others think that argument sounds less like a reason for accepting it and more like an excuse for doing so.

They call themselves the Toon Army, a fan fellowship whose passion is extraordinary even by the standards of English soccer’s Premier League. And last weekend, they were in full voice as they witnessed a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of their club, Newcastle United – thanks to players bought with hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi Arabian investment.

A hundred miles to the south, however, former Leeds University classmates of a woman named Salma al-Shehab had little reason to celebrate. She was sentenced last week to 34 years in a Saudi jail. Her “crime”? Expressing sympathy for dissidents and political activists on Twitter.

It’s a stark split-screen. And it sums up a challenge facing not just soccer but a growing range of sports, including boxing, Formula One racing, and, most recently, golf, with reports that the lavishly Saudi-funded new LIV tour is days away from prying more big names from the PGA.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Saudi Arabia’s ruler is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in international sports. Should teams take cash from the serial human rights abuser, or take a moral stand?

The question facing the top teams, star athletes, and sports administrators is this: how to balance the allure of the eye-watering sums on offer from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s state investment fund against his regime’s serial abuses of human rights – most notoriously, the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Yet while on one level the challenge could hardly seem simpler – a choice between taking the money and taking a moral stand – world sport’s search for a response is proving more complex.

Saudi state television/AP
In this frame grab from Saudi state television footage, women's rights advocate Salma al-Shehab speaks to a journalist at the Riyadh International Book Fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2014. A Saudi court last week sentenced Ms. Shehab to 34 years in prison for expressing sympathy for dissidents and political activists on Twitter.

That’s largely – but not only – because they want the money.

Cash is inescapably at the core of the debate surrounding the increasingly ambitious series of sports investments being made by MBS, as the kingdom’s de facto ruler is known.

For Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the Saudi policy constitutes “sportswashing,” a transparent bid to burnish the country’s international reputation by buying its way into pastimes followed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Yet complicating the picture, and so far hobbling any moves toward a more assertive response, have been two political issues: the contradictory nature of MBS himself, an intolerant autocrat who’s also undertaken social reforms, and the wider prevalence of sportswashing.

Sportswashing is not new. Newcastle’s opponents in last Sunday’s thrilling 3-3 draw were the reigning kings of English soccer, Manchester City. They themselves have bolstered their dominance since the team was bought in 2008 by a fund owned by a member of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family.

The UAE has also been criticized by Amnesty for “serious human rights violations.” Indeed, Sunday’s game was dubbed by one British newspaper as “the greatest sportswashing derby the Premier League has yet known.”

What’s different, however, about Newcastle’s $355 million takeover last year was that it involved the Saudi state’s investment fund, headed by MBS himself.

Since taking power, MBS has ruled with an increasingly authoritarian hand. He has crushed dissent, moving first against royal rivals, then against others deemed a potential threat. Increasing surveillance of ordinary citizens has added a wider political chill.

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report accuses his regime of a litany of rights violations, from “forced disappearances [and] torture” to “life-threatening prison conditions, arbitrary arrest,” and “harassment and intimidation” of dissidents overseas.

Seth Wenig/AP
Families and survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks attend a news conference near the site of the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, New Jersey, July 29, 2022. The group of Sept. 11 victims' family members, who have long accused Saudi Arabia of aiding the terrorists who carried out the attacks, condemned former President Donald Trump for hosting the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour at his New Jersey course.

And yet he has also been a reformer. He has reined in the fundamentalist police that for years enforced a rigid code of behavior on Saudi society. He has expanded social and economic freedoms and opened the kingdom to foreign influences in movies, music, the arts. He has begun, especially, to loosen the shackles on Saudi women: giving them the right to drive, for instance, and easing their legal dependence on husbands or “male guardians.”

Women have also gained new opportunities to watch, and participate in, sports.

Those opposed to simply turning down the Saudis’ money argue that the kingdom is changing, and that sportswashing is an issue by no means limited to Saudi Arabia.

Yet last week’s sentencing of the former Leeds University dentistry student arrested while vacationing back home last year, has given fresh impetus to human rights groups’ contention that this argument is less a reason than an excuse for not taking a stronger stand.

Saudi women continue to face discrimination in marriage, divorce, and other family issues, they point out. Women political activists are still being harassed, detained, and jailed.

In an appeal last weekend for the British government to intervene in Ms. Shehab’s “shocking” case, Hilary Benn, a prominent Member of Parliament and former international development secretary, took issue with Saudi claims of reform.

“You can’t on the one hand say, ‘we are opening up and liberalizing,’” he added, “and on the other hand send a women to prison for expressing her opinions on Twitter.”

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