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Tennis: Saudi's next coup in its ‘sportswashing’ campaign?

June 20, 2022 at 1:20 pm

The Saudi Arabia national flag [Chris McGrath/Getty Images]

Following its recent success in enticing major global sporting events to the kingdom through its financial muscle, Saudi Arabia is plotting a major push into tennis by bringing the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour event to the country. If green-lighted, Riyadh will be granted rights to host the global elite women’s professional tennis circuit and further boost the country’s reputation through a practice known as “sportswashing.”

The Saudis have been seeking a deal with the equivalent men’s organisation, the ATP Tour for at least five years but have been repeatedly rebuffed. With women’s tennis going through financial challenges, it’s thought that the Saudis may be more successful with the WTA.

“We have received inquiries from Saudi Arabia as to interest in bringing a WTA event to the region,” a +spokesperson is reported saying in the Telegraph. “As a global organisation, we are always interested and appreciative of inquiries received from anywhere in the world and we look seriously at what each opportunity may bring [but] we have not entered into formal negotiations.”

Read: Spanish player protest Riyadh tournament: ‘It doesn’t make sense to play in Saudi Arabia’

WTA has taken a moral stance against China over the Peng Shuai issue. The former doubles world No 1’s wellbeing became a concern for the WTA after she posted a message on social media about sexual abuse. Chief Executive Steve Simon suspended all of its tournaments in China, a decision which has cost the elite women’s tour hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship.

With deep pockets, Saudi Arabia could be an answer to WTA’s financial woes. Over the past few years Riyadh has been spending eye watering amounts of money to star players to play in exhibition matches in the kingdom.

A report by Grant Liberty exposing the colossal sums of money that the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has spent in a bid to bolster its reputation, found that Saudi Arabia had spent at least $1.5 billion on “sportswashing”.

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.

A rival to the PGA golf tour, the LIV Series, got under way earlier this year in Saudi Arabia. The multi-million-dollar tour will be funded by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). The PGA Tour has banned golfers who have joined the LIV Series. During an appearance on Fox News last month, Greg Norman, the figurehead of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series, said the decision was hypocritical given the tour’s own links with Saudi Arabia. He mentioned the millions of dollars in sponsorship to the PGA by companies that also invest in kingdom.