Ladies European Tour brings Saudi Arabian ‘sportwashing’ into spotlight

Graeme McDowell won the second Saudi International tour event against a global field while Rory McIlroy declined
Ladies European Tour brings Saudi Arabian ‘sportwashing’ into spotlight

One lone female professional spoke up against the decision: the 25-year old Englishwoman, Meghan Maclaren. Photo: PA

An announcement by the Ladies European Tour last month reignited a controversy about professional golf tournaments taking place in Saudi Arabia.

It may seem the horse has already bolted following the European Tour’s Saudi International golf tournaments of 2019 and 2020, but the Ladies European Tour is also involved. The original plan was for the ladies’ event to take place in March 2020, two months after the men, but Covid-19 put a stop to that. Until now. Last month, the Ladies European Tour announced not one but two ‘landmark’ tournaments for November, the first beginning tomorrow, with prize money of $1.5m (€1.27m) on offer.

A glossy video hit the airways showing female professionals giving lessons to young Saudi Arabian kids, hitting golf balls, and displaying the wonders of the kingdom. If you are wondering what the controversy is, it’s called sportswashing — the method by which a country uses sports to wash over its human rights records or wash away its tyrannical reputation. The kingdom began investing heavily in sports in late 2016, with the aim of attracting tourism. It was, however, also a public relations exercise to sportswash the country’s image. Saudi Arabia looked at investing in global football, pursued opportunities with wrestling’s WWE, and formed a partnership with the European Tour.

These were not the only sports. Boxing followed tennis and last December, Anthony Joshua regained his heavyweight boxing belts following a fight against Andy Ruiz Jr, in Riyadh. Joshua reportedly earned between more than €50m for his victory.

“I just came here for the boxing opportunity,” Joshua said. “I look around and everyone seems pretty happy and chilled. I’ve not seen anyone in a negative light out here, everyone seems to be having a good time,” he told the BBC.

Last week, Formula One said it had signed a minimum 10-year deal to run a Formula One event in the country. In response to the immediate criticism from human rights groups, it said: “We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”

The kingdom is heavily reliant on oil to drive its economy but recent efforts have been focused elsewhere. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy which is, in essence, the kingdom’s attempt to move away from its reliance on oil. It is an ambitious project and one that can change the social, economic, and political structures.

Only in his 30s, bin Salman was regarded as a progressive reformer until October 2018 and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Turkey. It made headlines around the world. The murder was condemned worldwide and any goodwill generated by bin Salman evaporated.

The European Tour’s first Saudi International golf tournament took place in January 2019, just three months after Khashoggi’s murder. It attracted many of the biggest names, including Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. Those are two names you won’t see on the regular European Tour timesheet. Johnson won the tournament, claiming his share of the $3.5m prize fund. It was a big coup for Saudi Arabia but a black mark against the European Tour.

Graeme McDowell: Played in Saudi Arabia event while Rory McIlroy declined. AP Photo/Amr Nabil
Graeme McDowell: Played in Saudi Arabia event while Rory McIlroy declined. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Fast forward to February 2020, and Graeme McDowell won the second Saudi International tour event against another global field, several of whom were lured by seven-figure appearance fees. These golfers faced some tough questions but that didn’t apply to Rory McIlroy who openly said that morality played a part in his decision not to compete, spurning a $2.5m appearance fee. “It’s just not something that would excite me,” McIlroy told Golf Channel. 

100%, there’s a morality to it as well ... You could say that about so many countries, not just Saudi Arabia, but a lot of countries that we play in there’s a reason not to go, but for me, I just don’t want to go.”

McIlroy’s stand doesn’t appear to have made much difference as Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau committed last week to playing in the third Saudi International, in February 2021.

The Ladies European Tour, despite the negative commentary, intends to follow the men. The first Aramco Saudi Ladies International was planned for last March. Eyebrows were raised: the prize fund weighed in at $1m, the second largest figure for a non-major on the Ladies European Tour, yet Saudi Arabia’s record on the treatment of women is hardly exemplary.

Women now drive cars thanks to a law introduced in 2018 (Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to ban female drivers), but dress codes alone show how oppressed women are, and women rights’ activists and lawyers have been targeted in a sweeping human rights crackdown.

One lone female professional spoke up: the 25-year old Englishwoman, Meghan Maclaren, with four wins to her name, gave the following rationale for not competing: 

I’ve decided not to play based on what I think sport is being used to do in Saudi Arabia. It’s far more complicated than any one individual, so it’s a personal decision and not something I would push onto anyone else. But based on the research of organisations like Amnesty International, I couldn’t be comfortable being part of that process.”

Any thought of the event sinking without trace was dismissed last week with the Ladies European Tour’s announcement. That glossy video to accompany the announcement showed female professionals wearing trousers. In one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, with strict dress code for women, it is expected that the golfers will have to compete in trousers, too. Temperatures reach 30C during the day in November. As much as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 shows ambition, the European Tour and Ladies European Tour have allowed the kingdom to dictate the terms while offering feeble platitudes that these tournaments are helping to develop the game.

McIlroy made some powerful points about morality playing a part in his decision not to compete in Saudi Arabia, but Maclaren added: “We take for granted a lot of the choices and freedom we have available to us, but I try to make my decisions based on who I am as a person, not just a golfer. It’s obviously a huge tournament for us, but this is about more than golf. I wish sport as a whole looked through a lens deeper than what benefits itself.”

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