Saudi Arabia’s massive recent investment in global sports has fueled accusations of sportswashing: the use of the Games and athletes to tarnish a country’s image under the guise of repression and authoritarian rule.
thereA $200-million-a-season contract to play for a team in Riyadh, a 10-year deal with WWE, a star-studded tennis tournament and the purchase of English Premier League soccer team Newcastle United. To critics, these extravagant investments are part of an effort to restore the country’s image and burn off its tarnished reputation.
Saudi Arabia’s Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud told 60 Minutes correspondent John Wertheim that he does not believe sports can be used in this way.
“I don’t agree with that, with that word (sportswashing). Because I think if you go to different parts of the world, you bring people together,” he said. “Everyone should come, see Saudi Arabia, see what it is and then make up your mind. See it for yourself. If you don’t like it, fine.”
Prince Abdulaziz said investment in sports is an essential part of a larger economic plan.Its “Vision 2030”, a $7 trillion Beyond oil, in addition to softening some of the country’s most restrictive social norms and laws.
But it is the actions of the crown prince, known as MBS, that have tarnished the country’s reputation, both hastening and complicating its entry into the sport. A CIA report says MBS authorized the killing and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist in 2018.. Under MBS’ rule, the number of executions increased dramatically In one day last March. The mildest criticism of the state, even on Twitter, has been met with detention, torture and prolonged and arbitrary detention .
Some social progress has been made in recent years: women are now allowed to drive, open their hair, hold passports and travel without a male guardian.
On the country’s fields and in gyms and recreation centers, young Saudis — men and women — are embracing the sport Rasha Al Khamis, the country’s first female certified boxing coach, participated in the highly publicized heavyweight title fight “Clash on the Dunes” in 2019.
“I would never imagine: me, going to the fight, driving my car and participating in the fight in my own country,” Al Khamis said. “It’s a huge transformation. You can feel the change is real.”
But critics and human rights activists feel that Saudi Arabia is not fit to host international sporting events.
Activist Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister Luzine was arrested and jailed while leading the Saudi women-to-drive movement, said Saudi Arabia’s investment in the sport has coincided with severe political repression. That leaves athletes and fans to choose.
“My message is, why would you go to Saudi Arabia and be silent about what’s happening on the ground? Why, why don’t you speak up for the prisoners, the people who have been silenced, the families who can’t speak. ?” Dr. Al-Hathloul. “Because when you go to Saudi Arabia, you are part of this covering machine, whether you like it or not.”
The nation’s largest swing in sports to date is $2.5 billion, which divided golf. Tiger Woods turned down $800 million from the Saudis to join LIV, dismissing the PGA Tour rival as “endless pit money.”
This past December, during the off-season for pro tennis, Riyadh hosted an exhibition featuring the top 10 stars. Australia’s Nick Kyrgios was blunt about the actual draw.
“Well, the money is pretty good, I’m not going to lie,” he said.
Despite a desert of empty seats—and little in the way of television rights, which are usually vital to sports—players were paid millions just to show up. Taylor Fritz, a Californian, earned $1 million in prize money for winning the weekend event.
Just last month, soccer’s governing body FIFA responded to player protests and rejected Saudi Tourism’s sponsorship offer for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. These ethical dilemmas will intensify if Saudi Arabia increases investment in sports.
For Lina Al-Hathloul, sports have a clear mission of billions of people.
“I think the Saudi government, the Saudi government and MBS, he wants people to think of Ronaldo when they think of Saudi, not Khashoggi,” Al-Hathloul said.