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What investing in sports really means to Saudi Arabia

A ceremony is held at Mrsool Park Staidum for Portugese football player Cristiano Ronaldo, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 3, 2023. [Mohammed Saad - Anadolu Agency]
A ceremony is held at Mrsool Park Staidum for Portugese football player Cristiano Ronaldo, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 3, 2023. [Mohammed Saad - Anadolu Agency]

Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) has led its sport spending spree into another year. After a robust 2022 with the launch of LIV Golf and the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo for Riyadh-based Al-Nassr Football Club, the Gulf giant is already said to be making moves to buy World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) as well as signing star Argentina footballer Lionel Messi to its most successful team, Al-Hilal, for a record sum.

In 2021, the Saudis purchased a controlling share in English Premier League team Newcastle United FC; introduced its Formula One Grand Prix; and secured the rights to host the Spanish Super Cup for years to come. As a result, accusations of sportswashing have arisen from a variety of human rights groups.

Sportswashing is a concerted effort by a country (or organisation) to use international sports to improve its reputation tarnished by human rights or similar violations and rebrand itself as a global good guy. An oft-cited historical example of sportswashing is Nazi Germany's hosting of the 1936 Olympics, a bid that had been approved in 1931 under the Weimar Republic. Adolf Hitler used the games to impress visiting national athletes and bolster Germany's flagging image after its defeat in World War One. More recent examples include China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics and Russia the 2018 FIFA World Cup. President Vladimir Putin launched the games by welcoming the world to an "open, hospitable, friendly Russia."

However, to claim that Saudi Arabia is sportswashing risks oversimplifying the Kingdom's more grandiose intentions. While Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad Bin Salman is likely to be concerned with the country's image following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, he surely understands that his image as a reformer is forever tarnished. Rather than launching a charm offensive as he did during his 2017 tour of the US, he is instead making soft power moves to strengthen his global position.

READ: After Ronaldo move, 2 Saudi clubs are looking to sign Messi

If sportswashing is only about image, then Saudi's strategy far exceeds that goal. Bin Salman's greater interest lies in the acquisition of power. No institution brings people of different nations and cultures together like sport. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was viewed by an estimated five billion people worldwide, with nearly 26 million in the US watching the final between France and Argentina. Saudi Arabia is now expected to lead a joint bid with Greece and Egypt to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup. Meanwhile, the Kingdom's ongoing investments usurp sports prestige from western countries who wield the greatest influence on global policy via the G7 and EU. Ascendency in sports translates to greater international status and influence, which in turn translates to global economic muscle.

While organisations like Amnesty International call on Ronaldo to use his lucrative contract with Al-Nassr to point out the human rights violations of his sponsoring host country, that is not likely to happen. The 37-year-old is earning just over $200 million per year, and is also given special privileges not extended to Saudi citizens, like living unmarried with his partner in the Kingdom known widely for its strict adherence to the edicts of Islam. Even if Ronaldo were to make a stand, it is unlikely to carry notable impact. Sports fans tend to ignore politics when supporting their teams and attending events, as evidenced in Qatar where human rights violations against migrant workers and other minority groups were well publicised.

Under Bin Salman, significant reforms have been made, particularly with regard to women's rights. In recent years, Saudi women have been given permission to pursue careers, and the guardianship law that prevented women from travelling without permission from a male family member has been dropped. Women can now attend sports events alongside men, drive, ride bicycles and play sports, and are no longer required to wear the hijab or abaya to cover themselves. The segregated sections in cafes and restaurants dividing single men from families or women have all but disappeared.

So what rights are being violated in Saudi Arabia? While reforms have indeed been made, it has happened solely on Bin Salman's terms. Long after driving was declared legal for women, activist Loujain Al-Hathloul remained imprisoned for advocating in favour of women's right to drive and an end to the male guardianship law. A well-known activist twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018, just a month before driving was made legal for women and a year before the guardianship law was dropped. Despite the reforms, Al-Hathloul and other women's rights activists are still in prison facing torture and staging hunger strikes, proving that for the Saudi ruler, their real crime was alleged subversion. Al-Hathloul spent nearly three years in prison before being released to live under house arrest with a five-year travel ban.

Further, Saudi citizens who may not agree with the liberal changes that have taken place know better than to speak up. Before his murder, Khashoggi was writing for the Washington Post and implicated Bin Salman in the imprisonment of hundreds of clerics, academics, journalists and social media personalities who had even mildly criticised the government of which the crown prince is the de facto head. One person, YouTube personality Abu Sin, was arrested on the charge of promoting indecency by conversing with an American girl on video chat.

READ: Real Madrid star Luka Modric rejects offer to join Saudi Al-Nassr Club

Most often cited is the number of executions in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has ranked in the top five countries with the most executions per year for well over a decade. While it had an unusual lull in 2020-21, recording 27 and 65 respectively (likely due to the pandemic), in 2022 executions doubled those of the previous year. A mass execution of 81 prisoners took place in Riyadh on 12 March, 2022. While the government had laid the crime of terrorism against those executed, Amnesty International noted that forty-one, or roughly half, were from Saudi's Shia minority; many had been arrested in 2011-12 for protesting against the government in the quest for more political participation. Furthermore, the mechanisms of justice in the court system are opaque, making it difficult to determine the validity of the convictions under due process.

Another controversial issue that has drawn negative attention to Bin Salman is the war in Yemen. In 2015, while Minister of Defence, he started a military campaign to support the internationally-recognised Yemeni government against Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen's civil war. He promised that the campaign — "Operation Decisive Storm" — would finish in weeks. It has now lasted eight years with no sign of an end in sight, having created a devastating humanitarian crisis along the way. According to the World Food Programme, at least half of Yemen's children under the age of five are at risk of malnutrition. The UN estimates that 377,000 have been killed, many by starvation. While war crimes have likely been committed by both sides of the conflict, Saudi forces have regularly bombed civilian targets, such as hospitals and homes.

It's hard to "wash away" a multitude of human rights violations without a green light from foreign governments concerned about the price of oil. Bin Salman, meanwhile, offers no apologies. His sights are set on a modernised Saudi state that can boast a diverse economic portfolio and a durable presence in the global sports market. Therein, he believes, lies power that can rival the influence of the G7 and the EU. This would be a coup beyond sportswashing, and one of much greater significance.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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