Gordon Campbell on Saudi sports-washing

636772c7afec66605218Since sport is our global religion, it isn’t surprising that the theocratic kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken the redemptive power of sportswashing very seriously indeed. To the point where the massive Saudi investment in all kinds of professional sport may be hoodwinking the West into overlooking the kingdom’s terrible human rights record.

In the past week, professional golf has been the latest sporting code to surrender to the onslaught of Saudi petrodollars. This week’s proposed merger between the US Professional Golf Association (PGA) and the Saudi backed LIV golfing cartel was so secretive that reportedly, not even the PGA’s own board knew what the CEO of the PGA was doing. If the deal goes through, the PGA’s independence is likely to become only nominal. Ultimately, professional golf will become hooked on Saudi money, and will follow the kingdom’s preferences for the sport’s development.

Golf is merely one component of the Saudi sporting juggernaut. The extent to which Saudi Arabia has bought into – or bought outright – some of the world’s sporting codes is remarkable. The last five years has seen major Saudi investments in football, Formula One racing, tennis, snooker, boxing, rally car driving, wrestling, horse racing, and yachting…. All in harmony with the Quality of Life subsection of the massive Saudi “ Vision 2030” National Plan. TheSaudis are playing a long game.


In football alone …The Saudis recently bought an 80% stake in Newcastle United, thus giving the kingdom direct access to the English Premier League, the world’s richest football competition. The Saudi Public Investment Fund has also just pumped over $1 billion into the country’s own domestic league, to transform it into one of the world’s top ten football leagues by 2030. To that end, the Saudis only yesterday paid out $US107 million for a two year deal that will lure the French striker Karim Benzema away from Real Madrid to the Saudi club Al Ittihad.

Famously, the Saudis have also signed Cristiano Ronaldo to an estimated $220 million USD deal that will see the Portuguese star playing for the Al Nassr club in the kingdom’s domestic league until 2025. The Saudi contract has turned Ronaldo into the world’s best-paid athlele.

The Saudis were also wooing Lionel Messi, but he has eventually decamped from Paris St Germain to join David Beckham’s Inter Miami CF soccer club instead. Other leading European players are reportedly on the Saudis’ shopping list. In a separate deal, Messi is being paid by Visit Saudi, a subsidiary of the Saudi Tourism Authority to serve as a tourism ambassador for the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has also invested $145 million into a three year deal with the Spanish Football Association, and has put a further $180 million into a sponsorship deal with Real Madrid. Finally… Saudi Arabia has also lodged a joint bid to stage the 2030 FIFA World Cup:

An ambitious bid for the 2030 tournament is being explored by the Saudis – jointly with Greece and Egypt – and they have not been deterred by the heavy scrutiny on human rights faced by current hosts Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, BTW, is not the only oil-rich Middle Eastern autocracy with a bad human rights record that has bought itself a major stake in international football. The all-conquering Manchester City football team is an investment vehicle owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family, while Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund owns Paris Saint Germain.

Other codes for sale

Horse racing: The Saudis have put $US20 million annually behind the nine-furlong Saudi Cup, thereby turning it into the world’s richest horse race.

Snooker: Before Covid struck, the Saudis had invested $US 33 million in hosting a huge Saudi Arabian Masters snooker tournament in the kingdom. This seems to have been indefinitely delayed. Reportedly, the hosting rights after 2027 for the World Snooker Championship are still open to competing bids between the Saudis, Qatar and the tournament’s current host, the city of Sheffield.

Fornula One: The Saudis have signed a $650 million ten-year deal with Formula One, and the annual circuit of championship contests now includes a race in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.

Car Rallying: It used to be known as a race from Paris to Dakar, in Senegal. Since 2020, this stellar off-road endurance race for drivers and machines has been held instead on a course situated entirely inside Saudi Arabia. The Dakar rally is still owned, however, by France’s Armaury Sports Organisation.

America’s Cup: The 37th America’s Cup races will be held in Barcelona, but all teams competing for the trophy must first take part in the Pre-Regatta run by the Jeddah Yacht Club, which is situated right next to the Formula One race track. Grant Dalton, the CEO for AC37, has seemed pumped about the potential for the Saudi involvement “to transform lives through sailing, and the technologies involved with it.”

One hates to dampen Dalton’s enthusiasm but the smiling hosts of the America’s Cup Pre-Regatta in Jeddah are also the salesmen for a regime responsible for mass executions, the butchering of dissident journalists, the severe persecution of religious minorities and the oppression of women and LGBT communities. The recent flirtations by the regime with modernity are not indicative of genuine change. The West’s sports and entertainment stars are being used as a way of allowing a segment of the younger generation of the ruling elite to let off steam that might otherwise have taken the form of political dissent.

For viewers here at home… Arguably, even watching the America’s Cup Pre-Regatta in Jeddah will make the New Zealand audience somewhat complicit in the regime’s crimes. Best to avoid.

Tennis: Last December the US tennis player Taylor Fritz beat world no.2 Daniil Medvedev in a 50 minute final to a tennis tournament held at the Al-Diriyah UNESCO world heritage site. Stan Wawrinka, Andrey Rublev and Cameron Norrie also took part.

The victory earned Fritz $US1 million in prize money. That’s roughly three times what Fritz took home for being beaten by Rafael Nadal in the quarter finals last year at Wimbledon. (Medvedev got half a million dollars for being the Diriyah runner up.)

Jon Wertheim, the US tennis writer, wrote an interesting column six weeks ago about the moral challenge facing world tennis organisations (and players) in their engagement with Saudi money. While honestly striving for balance, Wertheim ended up making a pretty strong case against business as usual:

Saying “Saudi Arabia should be a pariah state” and insisting it must be avoided at all cost by the global players is an oversimplification. But so is casual insouciant moral equivalency (“No country is perfect.”) and the invertebrate fallback “I’m an athlete, not a politician.”

When athletes and entertainers go to Saudi Arabia they are making a statement. They are taking money from a country that has no criminal code, that resides near the bottom in human rights rankings, that removes rainbow-colored toys from shelves, lest they encourage homophobia, that, per the CIA, has a ruler that, at a minimum “approved an operation to capture or kill” a Washington Post journalist.

For his part, Nick Kyrios indicated to Wertheim that he had no problem with either playing in Saudi Arabia, or with taking its money. Human rights concerns?

NK: I don’t know about all that. You know, I’m here to just play the sport that I love. And I feel like the people have only been supportive of that. And, look at all the show they put on for us. You know, everyone I’ve met here has made sure that I’m, you know, very comfortable. So, look, I’m not gonna go into all that. I’m just gonna come here and play tennis and be embraced.

In contrast, Andy Murray refused a seven figure sum to play in Saudi Arabia, on human rights grounds. Yet to the dismay of Amnesty International, Judy Murray (Andy’s mother) chose to run a tennis coaching clinic for Saudi girls in conjunction with the Diriyah Tennis Cup. Amnesty commented:

While promoting women’s sport in a country which has long stifled women and girls’ human rights is a positive thing, it is important that Judy Murray should realise she’s being asked to perform a sportswashing role in Saudi Arabia.

“We encourage Judy Murray, as we would other attendees at the Diriyah Tennis Cup, to use the opportunity to speak out and show solidarity with those who are being persecuted in Saudi Arabia’s relentless crackdown on human rights.”

As Wertheim concluded, the WTA governing body of women’s tennis needs to be more consistent about the moral stances it sometimes chooses to takes with respect to – for example – the Peng Shuai case in China:

The WTA in particular has a choice to make. The money is undeniable. You could make a case that a women’s tennis tournament is an exercise in cultural outreach, spreading the gospel and gender equity and opportunities through sports. You could also make the case that a tour that suspends operations in China on human rights grounds, only to set up shop in Saudi Arabia has ceded the moral high grounds.

Critics of the PGA deal have said that world golf has sold its soul for Saudi silver. More realistically, you could say that professional sport sold its soul quite some time ago to the highest bidder.

Even so, ceding the administration of global sport to a regime as blood-stained as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems a particularly gross example of wilful moral blindness. Some people still believe in the redemptive power of sport. Yet more often, professional sport is synonymous with the corruption evident at FIFA.

But if anything, the Saudis’ cynical use of sport to buy itself a degree of moral acceptance on the world stage seems to be even worse.

Reggae’s Greatest Rhythm

There are a few contenders, but the “Stalag” (aka “stagalag” ) rhythm is arguably the most prevalent, most copied, and most influential in classic reggae, finally reaching into hip hop via Public Enemy’s ‘ Don’t Believe The Hype.”

A few people claim to be Stalag’s parents, although it seems to have first appeared on the Ansel Collins track “ Stalag 17” produced by Winston Riley, and named after the 1953 William Holden prisoner of war movie. The creator of the Stalag bass line was George “Fully” Fullwood of the Soul Syndicate session band.

IMO, the three great examples of the Stalag rhythm are Tenor Saw’s hit “Ring The Alarm” Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and – best of them all – General Echo’s 1980 hit “Arleen” At the time, Echo (rea name:Earl Robinson) was widely regarded as the most innovative reggae DJ since U Roy first appeared in the late 1960s, and Big Youth in the early 1970s. (The Big Youth hit“All Nations Bow” also features the Stalag rhythm.)

“Arleen” was recorded shortly before Echo was gunned down by police at the age of 24 in what seemed more like an execution than a justifiable act of policing. The track features General Echo on the mic, “Fully” Fullwood on bass, and Carlton’ Santa” Davis on drums.

For comparison from 1982, here’s Sister Nancy with “Bam Bam..”

And finally, from 1985, here’s Tenor Saw’s monster hit “Ring the Alarm…”