In the days of the Roman Coliseum, they called it “Bread and Circuses” – leaders using the superficial appeal of entertainment to distract citizens from genuine problems. The term today: sportswashing: the use of games and teams and stadiums to cleanse an image and launder a reputation. A country that has never won an Olympic gold medal, Saudi Arabia has suddenly emerged as a major player in global sport: hosting events, buying teams, and luring athletes with staggering contracts. Is this investment an attempt to diversify the economy and cater to younger citizens, as its leaders claim? Or is it done to paper over human rights abuses, authoritarian rule and even murder? We visited the Kingdom to check out the sports world’s new nerve center, and check out what the Saudis and their neighbors are getting for their money.
Argentina may have claimed the World Cup last December, but it wasn’t the only country to emerge as a big winner. A controversial choice to host, the oil-rich Gulf State of Qatar threw more than $200 billion into staging the event and dribbled past criticism over its appalling human rights record. And another winner was next door. Saudi Arabia fielded the one team that beat Argentina — a triumph celebrated around the Arab world — not least by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud, the country’s minister of sport.
Prince Abdulaziz: It was unbelievable. It was just a milestone that we ticked that shows that if you put the effort and– and the right resources behind it, you can achieve impossible things.
The improbable continued after the World Cup. Saudi Arabia’s enormous resources—that is, sloshing oil money—enticed Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, a generational star, to play for a team in Riyadh. His salary? More than $200 million a season. That’s right $200 million: roughly the annual playing wages of LeBron James, Steph Curry, Aaron Judge and Patrick Mahomes, combined.
The opening bell for Saudi Arabia’s investment in global sports sounded three years ago with “The Clash on the Dunes,” a heavyweight title fight.
A few months later the Kingdom staged the world’s richest horse race.
There’s Formula 1 racing and a 10-year deal with the WWE. But, to many, these mega-events in Saudi Arabia are financial loss leaders being used to launder the image of a country, while cloaking repression and authoritarian rule.
Jon Wertheim: You’ve heard this term sportswashing, this idea that countries can cover up bad acts through sports. Do you believe in the concept that a country can use sports this way?
Prince Abdulaziz: Not at all. I don’t agree with that, with that term. Because I think that if you go to different parts of the world then you bring people together. Everyone should come, see Saudi Arabia, see it for what it is, and then make your decision. See it for yourself. If you don’t like it, fine.
Which is precisely why we came to Saudi Arabia late last year—to see this unlikely sports hub for ourselves. December is the off season for pro tennis, yet Riyadh was the site of an exhibition, studded with top 10 stars and embroidered with local touches… falcons enlisted to help with the draw ceremony. But the real draw? Australia’s Nick Kyrgios was blunt.
Interviewer: What brought you here at the end?
Nick Kyrgios: Well, the money is pretty good, I am not going to lie.
Despite deserts of empty seats—and little in the way of television rights, usually the lifeblood for sports—the players were paid millions just to show up. And Taylor Fritz, a Californian, earned $1 million in prize money for winning the weekend event.
The Saudis aren’t just hosting events. Through the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, they bought an English Premier League soccer team, Newcastle United. We saw them for a visiting game against a local team… pointedly, abandoning their usual striped kits, for the green of the Saudi flag.
Then there is, to date, Saudi’s biggest swing in sports: the $2.5 billion LIV Tour, which has divided golf. Dismissing this rival to the PGA Tour as quote “an endless pit money,” Tiger Woods turned down $800 million from the Saudis to join LIV. Many other top players—including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson—did switch their tour allegiances, both paid, as they were, north of $100 million.
Jon Wertheim: This flood of Saudi money into sports is just absolutely, it’s a disruptor. It’s, it’s completely changing the face of sports. Is, is that the intention?
Prince Abdulaziz: Not at all. It adds a lot to the sport.
Jon Wertheim: But you have to realize the impact this has. I mean, when winners of LIV Golf events are making multiple times what Tiger Woods won the last time he won the Masters, that’s a big economic change.
Prince Abdulaziz: It doesn’t matter I think if the impact of increasing the participation of sports and the interest in that sport is growing– then why not?
The sports minister insists that the massive investment is an essential pillar of what is called “Vision 2030:” A $7 trillion plan by the kingdom’s effective ruler Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, or MBS, to diversify the economy beyond oil, while softening some of its most restrictive social conventions and laws. It’s now permitted for women to drive, uncover their head, hold a passport and travel without a male guardian.
On the country’s fields, and in gyms and rec centers, young Saudis—male and female—are embracing sport. So are their moms. Rasha Al Khamis is the country’s first female certified boxing coach. Back in 2019 she attended the “Clash on the Dunes” fight.
Jon Wertheim: This is your country. These are two international superstars, and you’re not watching them on TV. You’re watching ’em live, here. What was that like?
Rasha Al Khamis: I would never imagine that me– going to the fight, driving my car and attending the fight in– in my own country. So that’s a h– that’s a massive transformation. And you can feel that the change is tangible.
Yet, these changes come at a cost. Loujain Al-Hathloul led the Saudi woman-to-drive movement—and was punished for her activism: arrested, charged with terrorism, and sentenced to prison, where she says she was tortured. Even after her release, she is prevented from leaving the country. Her sister Lina lives in exile and spoke with us remotely.
Lina Al-Hathloul: When we talk about sports, of course we do want to have entertainment in Saudi Arabia. We do want to have this. But not at the expense of, of our freedoms. We don’t want to be living in fear and not knowing if tomorrow they will break into our house and take our sister or our daughter. I do not want to live in this country. I want to live in a country where I feel free, truly.
Jon Wertheim: Even if they have fancy sporting events?
Lina Al-Hathloul: I want both.
Her sister’s harsh treatment, she says, underscores a stark paradox: at a time when social freedoms have expanded, political repression in Saudi Arabia has become more severe.
Jon Wertheim: You’re saying this is window dressing. This is– this is cosmetic. And behind the games there’s mass executions and repression like never before.
Lina Al-Hathloul: Absolutely. Exactly. This is what’s happening.
The cultural shift goes beyond sports. Who would have pegged Saudi Arabia to start hosting an annual desert rave? Bruno Mars and DJ Khaled were among the headliners. It’s all of a piece: sports, entertainment, tourism. To marry it all, the crown prince turned to American impresario, Jerry Inzerillo.
Jon Wertheim: What’s a guy from Brooklyn doin’ in a place like this?
Jerry Inzerillo: Creating magic, makin’ a place welcoming for everybody to come see the kingdom the birthplace of the kingdom. Very exciting times. Salaam-Alaikum.
In his career in hospitality and entertainment, Inzerillo launched Atlantis in the Bahamas. Name a global celebrity and, be assured, Jerry has made their acquaintance.
Jerry Inzerillo: I’ve done five decades in tourism. My job is to welcome people and to create joy and festivity. With Vision 2030 now we want people to come to Saudi.
Today he oversees a massive $63 billion development on the site where the Saudi state was born, converting it into a modern Xanadu with homes for 100,000 people, luxury hotels and restaurants. We asked Inzerillo about his comfort level representing this autocracy. He told us he focuses on the positive.
Jerry Inzerillo: You know I went to school in Las Vegas, and there’s a gambling term that when you’re way ahead, you’re playing with house money.
Jon Wertheim: You winning?
Jerry Inzerillo: Oh, I’m– not only am I winning, I’ve won.
Jerry Inzerillo: You know there’s an old country western song, ‘Dance with the one who brung ya.’
Jon Wertheim: Who brung ya?
Jerry Inzerillo: Who brung me here?
Jon Wertheim: Yeah.
Jerry Inzerillo: Vision 2030, a very benevolent, very loved king, and a very visionary, dynamic crown prince.
But it’s the less noble doings of the crown prince that have stained the country’s reputation, both accelerating and complicating its foray into sports. A CIA report said MBS approved the 2018 assassination and dismembering of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Under MBS’ rule, executions have drastically increased, including a mass beheading of 81 people in one day last March. The mildest criticism of the state, even on Twitter, has been met with detention, torture and long and arbitrary prison sentences.
Jon Wertheim: We’ve heard a lot about transition. We’ve seen it with our own eyes. But the concern is that this country right now is still not fit to hold international sporting events.
Prince Abdulaziz: We’re not saying that we’re perfect, but what I’m trying to say is that these things help us to achieve a better future for our population.
Jon Wertheim: I think no country would say they’re perfect, but are you saying that every country has a leader that, according to the CIA, has ordered a murder of a journalist? Are you saying that every country has 81 beheadings in a single day? And if the answer is no, doesn’t it make this relative argument, this whataboutism, doesn’t it make that irrelevant?
Prince Abdulaziz: Well, what I’m trying to say is that, ‘Let’s look at the good side about this.’ And– and, you know, you’re just pinpointing certain topics that if we– I go and, you know, we had the mass shooting a couple of weeks ago in the U.S. Does that mean that we don’t host the– the World Cup in the U.S.? No. We should go to the U.S. We should get people together.
Jon Wertheim: A mass shooting is not a government actor. Let’s be clear about that.
Prince Abdulaziz: Still, whatever– whatever, people died. But what I’m trying to say is that if we look at only the bad side, then we shouldn’t do anything.
Jon Wertheim: Are there not universals, are there not basic thresholds you think need to be met?
Prince Abdulaziz: As I said, there is a lot of issues with a lot of countries. But then you mention that the order came from the crown prince, and that’s not true. There’s no proof of that– as we speak–
Jon Wertheim: You’re denying that the CIA’s report that says this was ordered and approved–
Prince Abdulaziz: I don’t think the CIA report actually says that, if you look at it.
The CIA report concluded: “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “approved an operation…. to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Still, the games go on. So do the choices. Just last month, FIFA—soccer’s governing body, not known for occupying ethical high ground—responded to protests from players and turned down Saudi Tourism’s sponsorship offer for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. These moral dilemmas will only intensify.
Jon Wertheim: When we were in Saudi Arabia, we saw a top-level tennis event– a top-level golf event had just been held. Bruno Mars had given a concert. What would your message be to the athletes and entertainers who are coming in to perform and compete?
Lina Al-Hathloul: My message is that, why would you go to Saudi Arabia and stay silent on what is going on on the ground? Why– why won’t you speak on behalf of the prisoners who have been muzzled, on– on all the families that cannot speak? Because when you go to Saudi Arabia you are part of– of– this covering up machine.
Jon Wertheim: What do you think the purpose is of throwing around billions and billions of dollars into sports like this?
Lina Al-Hathloul: I think the Saudi government, the Saudi regime and– and MBS, he wants people to think of– Ronaldo– when they think about Saudi and not about Khashoggi.
Jon Wertheim: That’s become the association now. We’ve gone from the murdered journalist to the star soccer player.
Lina Al-Hathloul: Absolutely, yeah. Unfortunately.
Produced by Michael H. Gavshon. Associate producer, Nadim Roberts. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matthew Lev.