The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations convened a hearing this week to scrutinize the proposed merger between the PGA Tour and its upstart Saudi-backed rival LIV Golf. This potential merger, which made headlines last month, puts a spotlight on Saudi Arabia's strategy of exploiting international sports as a platform for its own soft power and influence, particularly within the United States.
The committee heard testimonies from the PGA Tour's chief operating officer, Ron Price, and board member Jimmy Dunne. Notably absent, citing "scheduling conflicts," were Greg Norman, LIV Golf's CEO, and Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, which bankrolls the LIV tour. Their absence is particularly disconcerting, given the substantial stakes and implications involved.
Saudi Arabia's foray into American golf is part of a broader, insidious trend of "sportswashing"—the use of sports to whitewash a country's international reputation, especially its human rights record. From Russia hosting the World Cup to China hosting two Olympic Games, Saudi Arabia is hardly alone when it comes to sportswashing. But Saudi Arabia is taking this tactic to a whole new level, given the unprecedented amounts of money being spent by the PIF on golf, soccer and so much more. Sportswashing is part of a vast foreign influence campaign by Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to expand the kingdom's economic and political leverage, especially in the U.S., and prevent a repeat of the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, when American and other Western businesses partially boycotted Saudi Arabia in protest.
Sportswashing is part of a vast foreign influence campaign by Saudi Arabia to expand its economic and political leverage, especially in the U.S.
- Raed Jarrar
Under the stewardship of MBS, as the crown prince is known, Saudi Arabia has been directing billions worth of investments into the U.S. economy through the PIF, which manages more than $700 billion in Saudi government money—buying major stakes in the likes of Uber, gaming companies Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts, and the private-equity giant Blackstone. The PIF's investment strategy not only amplifies Saudi influence but underscores a perilous reality where the bedrock of America's economy—and by extension, possibly even the U.S. government itself—can be bought by the world's richest despots.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the chair of the Senate hearing Tuesday, was vocally critical of the PGA Tour's proposed merger with LIV Golf, repeatedly admonishing PGA officials to reconsider their decision. The committee, he said, would probe "what went into the PGA Tour's deal with the Saudi Public Investment Fund and what the Saudi takeover means for the future of this cherished American institution and our national interest." By contrast, Republicans on the committee, led by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, appeared to be in a rush to defend the deal— "You carved out a win-win situation," Johnson said—while also arguing that Congress shouldn't be investigating it at all.
The hearing was instrumental in bringing to light not only the ramifications of the Saudi government's potential ownership of a national U.S. sporting institution, but its massive investments across the American economy. It illuminated the alarming growth of the Saudi government's economic and political presence within the United States, a trend that threatens to undermine the country's democratic values. Such substantial Saudi influence could potentially stifle protests against Saudi Arabia in the U.S. or withdrawals of U.S. engagement and business ties with the kingdom—the very response to Khashoggi's assassination in 2018. This should serve as a stark reminder that as more Saudi human rights abuses come to light, many American businesses, celebrities, sports stars and institutions may find themselves silenced, much like Saudi citizens, in deference to their benefactor.
Indeed, one aspect of the proposed PGA-LIV merger agreement that raised eyebrows is a non-disparagement clause that Blumenthal called "as broad a non-disparagement clause as I have ever seen," warning it could be used to muzzle criticism of Saudi Arabia from anyone connected to professional golf. Members of the PGA Tour, for example, could face potential legal liability just for speaking out about Saudi human rights abuses. In another sign of Republican support for the deal—and for the Saudi government— Johnson dismissed those concerns and claimed the non-disparagement clause was "standard."
As more Saudi human rights abuses come to light, many American businesses, celebrities, sports stars and institutions may find themselves silenced, much like Saudi citizens, in deference to their benefactor.
- Raed Jarrar
Saudi Arabia's lucrative foreign influence campaign, of which sportswashing is merely a subset, also includes the Saudi government's pervasive use of American lobbyists in Washington. These lobbyists, often former U.S. government officials themselves, receive tens of millions of dollars annually to influence U.S. officials in Washington to maintain and even expand their support for the Saudi regime, despite its heinous human rights record. DAWN's own "Lobbyist Hall of Shame" exposes these lobbyists who represent abusive governments like Saudi Arabia's. The detailed profiles we publish put the lobbyists and the government officials they interact with on notice. Their activities in the service of brutal regimes like the one in Riyadh are scrutinized and evaluated in light of human rights laws in the U.S., as well as professional ethics.
Challenging this Saudi influence campaign isn't just the responsibility of politicians. U.S. businesses, consumers and civil society must remain vigilant, pushing back against deceptive tactics like sportswashing. The influx of Saudi money in the U.S. could imply that American businesses and the wider U.S. political system endorse a regime notorious for its gross human rights abuses, led by an erratic and volatile king-in-waiting. This week's Senate hearing suggested otherwise, and Congress must continue to expose Saudi Arabia's nefarious campaign to buy influence in the U.S.