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Secretive Saudi golf plans prepare to set personal gain against human rights

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/27/2021 Ewan Murray
Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

It feels like exaggeration to suggest Saudi Arabia, buoyed by a takeover of Newcastle United, will ride this wave sporting achievement and conquer golf. Saudi interest in this particular sport has been as longstanding as it has been depressingly unchallenged despite human rights abuses. There is now, however, sign of incremental progress.

At an extremely select media briefing in New York in the coming days, the Saudis will break with anything that has come before and expand – albeit to hand-picked outlets, of course – on their plans for the professional game’s ultimate disruption plan. Industry insiders believe Greg Norman will be confirmed as the public face of a series – possibly involving a dream of 10 events on the Asian Tour – as obvious, direct competition to the European and PGA Tours. Saudi Golf and the Asian Tour are already in alliance for the Saudi International in February. Norman is understood to have been busy on behalf of the Saudis in the corporate world.

Next February’s Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club will be the first of a 10-year partnership with the Asian Tour. © Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Next February’s Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club will be the first of a 10-year partnership with the Asian Tour.

Related: Newcastle takeover is done and dusted but spotlight should stay on human rights | Max Rushden

The recurring theme for any tournament with Saudi backing is appearance money and rafts of it. Think of a number and add zeros. One member of the US Ryder Cup team has disclosed to friends that he was offered $150m (£109m) for a three-year commitment to multiple Saudi-backed events.

Some players have already signed on for multiple appearances in the Saudi International, as was once the domain of the European Tour. It remains improbable that Dustin Johnson and others will be prevented from being released by the European or PGA Tours for the 2022 staging of that event, despite calendar clashes with other tournaments. Yet the European and PGA Tours have shown no willingness whatsoever to engage with a Saudi breakaway. This makes the issue of multiple releases for any extended series highly problematic. It may also prove a legal minefield.

Saudi Golf has always believed golfers are independent traders and can play wherever they choose. Yet despite years worth of planning, fluttering of eyelids and Saudi pitches before players and agents, no current top player has demonstrated a formal desire to break from the current tour model. Neither is there any discernible public relations strategy despite – or perhaps because of – Saudi control of a UK-based golf PR firm. The Saudis, surely, are getting close to the point where something meaningful has to happen.

Quite rightly, neither the PGA nor European Tour will publicly address the issue of releases for now. If they do so, it both acknowledges a legitimate threat that may not seriously exist and gives the Saudis a position to challenge. At face value, it seems unlikely that members of existing Tours would not be bound by any restrictions at all. Were that the case, golf’s ecosystem would surely have been seriously challenged long ago. Far from cowering in the corner, the European Tour has revealed a five-week Middle Eastern swing for early next year.

Greg Norman is expected to be revealed as the public face of Saudi Arabia’s golf plans. Photograph: Phelan M Ebenhack/AP © Provided by The Guardian Greg Norman is expected to be revealed as the public face of Saudi Arabia’s golf plans. Photograph: Phelan M Ebenhack/AP

Norman’s Saudi involvement is interesting but not necessarily crucial. Bluntly, his earlier standing in the sport is likely to matter little to golf’s current aristocracy. Norman was central to a World Golf Tour proposal in 1994 which did, at least, have a television broadcasting contract but crashed after the crucial intervention of Arnold Palmer. The PGA Tour duly expanded and thrived.

At the weekend, Saudi Arabia was catapulted back into the consciousness of anyone in the United States willing to listen with revelations on CBS’s 60 Minutes by Saad Aljabri, a former high–ranking intelligence official in the kingdom. Aljabri said had been warned after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that a Saudi hit team was heading to Canada to kill him. Aljabri branded crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a “psychopath with no empathy”. Saudi Arabia has previously denied there was an attempt on Aljabri’s life in Canada and, in response to the television interview, labelled him “a discredited former government official”. The kingdom has denied that the murder of Khashoggi was ordered by Prince Mohammed but a declassified US intelligence assessment concluded the murder was approved by the crown prince. It is an entirely ominous scene for anybody of a mind to look particularly closely.

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Speaking previously about Saudi’s quiet spread into golf, Amnesty International said: “Golfers should consider the effects of Saudi sportswashing and their role within it. Any golfer tempted by a lucrative Saudi-backed tournament ought to be ready to speak out about human rights in Saudi Arabia as a means of counteracting its intended sportswashing effect.”

However, golf’s specific willingness to turn the other cheek regarding Saudi Arabia remains curious. It is also undoubtedly a key reason why the kingdom continue with plans to stage multiple events. CNN’s Living Golf, a magazine show, returned to air last year with Golf Saudi as a title sponsor. Aramco, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, has its name attached to four events out of five on the Ladies European Tour from mid-October. Catriona Matthew, Europe’s Solheim Cup captain, is among those to sing the praises of the Aramco Series. Meghan MacLaren, the English professional, refused to play in Saudi on moral grounds in 2020. “It’s obviously a huge tournament for us but this to me is about more than golf,” she said at the time. MacLaren appeared in the field for the recent Aramco Series stop in New York. As, it must be acknowledged, did a batch of the finest female players in the world.

“I’ve shared my thoughts on this previously,” said MacLaren via her management when challenged on the change of heart. “We’ve seen that events across all sports are going to go on regardless of what your personal feelings are. This particular week is a very strong field; a chance for me to test my golf against some of the world’s best. I’ve also got my future LET [Ladies European Tour] status to consider. I have just completed a full Symetra Tour season and since I’m still in the USA, this event suits my schedule well.” The change of language is stark.

It is now apparently Saudi Arabia’s turn to offer sentiment of their own. It has to be impactful, otherwise a scheme that has rumbled away in golf’s undergrowth risks losing lingering traces of credibility.


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