Home News ‘Golf truce shows how Saudi money is changing world sport’

‘Golf truce shows how Saudi money is changing world sport’

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Saudi sports investment

The recent merger between the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, made possible by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), has underscored the transformative influence of Saudi money on global sports. The deal, which caught golf’s traditional tours off guard, exemplifies the shifting power dynamics resulting from the kingdom’s substantial investments in the sporting world.

Under the leadership of its ruling crown prince, Saudi Arabia has solidified its multi-billion-pound stake in sports through acquisitions, event hosting, and sponsorships. The country has already played host to prestigious tournaments in tennis, boxing, Formula 1, and European club football, among others. Additionally, it made headlines with the acquisition of Premier League club Newcastle United by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, PIF, as well as the recruitment of Cristiano Ronaldo for the domestic league.

However, the recent merger signifies an unprecedented investment by Saudi Arabia, suggesting its aim to effectively acquire an entire sport. This remarkable advancement into golf serves as evidence of the kingdom’s rapidly escalating pursuit of sporting dominance. With the confirmation of Karim Benzema joining Ronaldo in the Saudi Pro League and PIF taking control of four top clubs, further lavish spending is expected.

There were even speculations that Lionel Messi, the greatest player of his generation, might have joined them. However, Messi opted for Inter Miami instead. Nevertheless, it is increasingly anticipated that these high-profile signings are part of a larger strategy to position Saudi Arabia as a contender for hosting the 2030 World Cup, regardless of the controversies it would inevitably provoke.

Critics argue that Saudi Arabia’s foray into global sports serves as a means to “sportswash” its tarnished reputation, diverting attention from longstanding human rights concerns such as women’s rights abuses, criminalization of homosexuality, restrictions on free speech, use of the death penalty, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and its involvement in the Yemen conflict. Amnesty International’s Felix Jakens labeled the golf merger as another example of Saudi sportswashing, emphasizing the country’s broader efforts to become a major sporting power while evading scrutiny of its human rights record.

Saudi authorities, however, dismiss these allegations as unfair and hypocritical. They argue that the investment in sports aligns with the ruler’s “Vision 2030” strategy, aimed at modernizing the kingdom, inspiring active participation, boosting tourism, and diversifying the economy in anticipation of a post-oil era. Additionally, geopolitics and regional rivalries contribute to Saudi Arabia’s sporting investments, as it competes with neighboring UAE and Qatar to establish itself as the capital of sports in the Gulf.

Supporters of Saudi investment in sports point out the extensive trade that Western countries conduct with the Middle Eastern state, questioning why golf or other sports should reject unprecedented funding while governments continue selling billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. They argue that sport’s exposure and scrutiny have played a role in driving recent reforms, highlighting the kingdom’s investments in women’s football. FIFA has acknowledged the positive societal impact the game has had in Saudi Arabia, and other countries with human rights concerns, like China, have hosted major sporting events in the past.

Nevertheless, the embrace of Saudi investment in sports poses significant challenges and opportunities for sports organizations. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, despite touting the growth and unity resulting from the merger, has faced calls for resignation from a 9/11 victims group, accusing his organization of hypocrisy and greed. The Premier League and FIFA have also encountered pressure and criticism for their handling of Saudi-related issues, such as Newcastle United’s takeover and the proposed sponsorship deal for the Women’s World Cup.

The International Cricket Council’s partnership with Saudi state energy company Aramco has raised concerns about the association between sports and the fossil fuel industry. Critics argue that the sport is being used for “greenwashing” purposes. While challenges persist, the prevailing trend indicates a clear trajectory: increased financial influence from Middle Eastern petro-states. This transformation is evident not only in golf but also in football, as clubs like Manchester City, Paris St-Germain, and Manchester United become the focal points of substantial investment.

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious spending spree in the world of sports represents a broader trend that is reshaping the industry. With reports of potential bids for Formula 1 and ventures into tennis, the kingdom’s resources and aspirations continue to disrupt and raise difficult questions for those accustomed to being in control.

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