Saudi Arabia’s strategy of utilizing international sports to bolster its soft power and influence has come under scrutiny as the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations conducted a hearing to examine the proposed merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, a Saudi-backed rival. While this potential merger grabbed headlines, it sheds light on a broader trend known as “sportswashing” employed by Saudi Arabia and other nations to improve their international reputation. However, sportswashing is just one facet of Saudi Arabia’s extensive foreign influence campaign, designed to expand its economic and political leverage, particularly within the United States.
The Absence of Key Figures:
During the hearing, testimonies were heard from Ron Price, the PGA Tour’s Chief Operating Officer, and Jimmy Dunne, a board member. However, the notable absence of key figures such as Greg Norman, CEO of LIV Golf, and Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), raised concerns regarding the stakes and implications involved in the proposed merger. Their absence hints at potential disconcerting motives behind the merger and calls for a closer examination of the Saudi influence in American sports.
Sportswashing and Saudi Arabia’s Expanding Influence:
Saudi Arabia’s foray into American golf is part of a wider sportswashing trend observed in various countries, including Russia and China. However, Saudi Arabia takes this strategy to a whole new level with substantial investments made by the PIF in golf, soccer, and more. This sportswashing tactic is just one component of Saudi Arabia’s vast foreign influence campaign, masterminded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The campaign aims to solidify the kingdom’s economic and political leverage, especially in the United States, while attempting to prevent the aftermath of the Jamal Khashoggi murder incident in 2018 when Western businesses partially boycotted Saudi Arabia in protest.
The PIF’s Investments and Foreign Influence:
Under MBS’s leadership, Saudi Arabia has directed billions of dollars through the PIF into the U.S. economy, acquiring major stakes in prominent entities such as Uber, Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Blackstone. These investments not only amplify Saudi influence but also highlight the alarming reality where America’s economic foundation and even the government itself can be influenced by despotic regimes. Such substantial Saudi influence within the United States poses a threat to democratic values and may hinder protests against Saudi Arabia or withdrawals of U.S. engagement and business ties with the kingdom.
The Senate Hearing and its Implications:
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the chair of the Senate hearing, voiced strong criticism of the proposed merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf. He emphasized the need to reassess the decision, highlighting the potential consequences for the future of American sports and national interests. Conversely, Republicans on the committee, led by Sen. Ron Johnson, showed support for the deal and argued against Congress’s involvement in investigating it. This partisan divide underscores the complexity of the issue and the need for a comprehensive examination of Saudi Arabia’s influence.
Non-Disparagement Clause and Silencing Criticism:
One alarming aspect of the proposed merger agreement is the inclusion of a non-disparagement clause. Sen. Blumenthal criticized the broad nature of this clause, warning that it could potentially muzzle criticism of Saudi Arabia from anyone connected to professional golf. This could extend legal liability to PGA Tour members for speaking out against Saudi human rights abuses. The dismissive response from Sen. Johnson, who considered the non-disparagement clause as “standard,” raises concerns about the deal’s implications for freedom of speech and the ability to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.
Lobbying and Challenging Saudi Influence:
Saudi Arabia’s influence campaign extends beyond sportswashing and includes the pervasive use of American lobbyists in Washington. These lobbyists, often former U.S. government officials themselves, receive substantial sums of money to influence U.S. officials to support the Saudi regime, despite its abysmal human rights record. Challenging this Saudi influence is not solely the responsibility of politicians but also falls upon U.S. businesses, consumers, and civil society. Vigilance and resistance against deceptive tactics like sportswashing are necessary to counteract the influx of Saudi money into the United States and to safeguard democratic values.
The Senate hearing on the proposed merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf has provided valuable insights into Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing tactics and its broader foreign influence campaign. The implications of Saudi ownership of a U.S. sporting institution and the extensive investments in the American economy are profound and demand careful consideration.
Saudi Arabia’s use of international sports as a platform for soft power and influence is part of a larger strategy to expand its economic and political leverage, particularly within the United States. By investing substantial amounts through the Public Investment Fund (PIF) in various sectors, including sports, Saudi Arabia aims to solidify its presence and prevent a repeat of the fallout following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Senate hearing has shed light on the potential consequences of Saudi Arabia’s growing influence, which pose a threat to democratic values and may hinder protests or withdrawals of U.S. engagement with the kingdom. The proposed merger agreement’s inclusion of a non-disparagement clause raises concerns about freedom of speech and the ability to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights abuses. The dismissal of these concerns by certain lawmakers further underscores the need for continued scrutiny.
It is imperative that Congress maintains its vigilance in exposing Saudi Arabia’s attempts to buy influence in the United States. This goes beyond the realm of politics; it requires the active participation of U.S. businesses, consumers, and civil society. By challenging deceptive tactics like sportswashing and remaining steadfast in upholding democratic values, the United States can send a clear message that it will not compromise its principles for financial gain.
Furthermore, the role of American lobbyists in Washington must be scrutinized to ensure that the Saudi regime’s human rights record is not whitewashed or ignored. Lobbyists should be held accountable for their activities, and the government officials they interact with must be aware of the ethical implications of their engagements.
The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs urges continued awareness and engagement from all stakeholders. U.S. businesses must be cautious about the implications of accepting Saudi investments, understanding the potential consequences for their reputation and values. Consumers should also be mindful of the products and services they support, ensuring they align with their own ethical standards.
In the face of Saudi Arabia’s vast foreign influence campaign, it is essential for the United States to remain committed to its democratic values and human rights principles. By doing so, the nation can protect its institutions, businesses, and citizens from being silenced or compromised by the Saudi regime. The Senate hearing has served as a critical step in exposing Saudi Arabia’s efforts, and it is incumbent upon Congress to continue its efforts to shed light on and counteract these actions.