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Saudi Arabia has spent ‘at least’ $1.5bn on 'sportswashing'

March 29, 2021 at 3:05 pm

The Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club on February 06, 2021 in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia [Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images]

Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5 billion on “sportswashing”, a new report by Grant Liberty is expected to say later this week. Details of the report by the human rights group were revealed by the Guardian, exposing the colossal sums of money that the Kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has spent in a bid to bolster its reputation.

From chess championships to golf, tennis, horse-racing, and wrestling, nearly every major global sporting event has been targeted by the Saudis. The report also details the Kingdom’s $650 million ten-year deal with Formula One. The 2021 season began yesterday with the Bahrain Grand Prix, and for the first time will include a race in the port city of Jeddah.

“Sportwashing” is the practice of investing or hosting sporting events in a bid to obscure the Kingdom’s poor human rights record. It was cited by Grant Liberty in a previous report on Saudi Prisoners of Conscience. That report’s release earlier this year documented 309 known prisoners of conscience arrested since Bin Salman became Crown Prince in June 2017.

Highlighting the Kingdom’s attempts at “sportswashing”, the report listed the proposal to purchase Newcastle United Football Club in the English Premier League. The bid did not go through because the league’s conditions were apparently not fulfilled.

READ: Saudi ‘sportswashing’ abuse with purchase of UK football club

Like many other oppressive regimes in recent years, the Saudis’ public relations campaign has sought to benefit from an association with popular sport, spending big to secure involvement in global sporting events. This includes $145m in a three-year deal with the Spanish Football Association; $15m in appearance fees for a single Saudi International men’s golf tournament; $33m to host the Saudi Arabian Masters snooker tournament in the Kingdom; and $100m for the boxing match known as “Clash on the Dunes” between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua in 2019.

“Saudi Arabia is trying to use the good reputation of the world’s best-loved sports stars to obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture, and murder,” Grant Liberty’s Lucy Rae is reported as saying. She accused the Kingdom of “committing human rights abuses on an industrial scale” and warned that “the world’s leading sports stars might not have asked to be part of a cynical marketing plan to distract the world from the brutality – but that’s what is happening.”