When a new Saudi-backed golf league began recruiting high-profile players from America’s top circuits, the U.S. Tour commissioner lamented “foreign monarchies spending billions to buy the game of golf.”
PGA Tour head and commissioner Jay Monahan has lashed out at players who have moved to the new league LIV Golf, suggesting that the Saudi government’s human rights abuses will leave a stain on the players. But on Tuesday, Monahan sat smiling with the head of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund and announced a lucrative partnership between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf.
“I know people will call me a hypocrite,” Monahan later said. “But things change.”
The deal, if realized, would be a major victory for Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to become a major player in the world sport and give Saudi Arabia a major influence in the world of golf. means. But the significance of the moment goes beyond sports as Saudi Arabia, under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed, seeks to expand its political influence in the Middle East and beyond.
Over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has had some successes, including a flurry of diplomatic activity and the opening of an embassy in longtime regional rival Iran, as the two countries move toward restoring normal relations.
And the golf deal is just the cap of a busy week in which Prince Mohammed hosts US Secretary of State Anthony J. Brinken, who arrived Tuesday night.
Mr. Blinken is another Biden representative who was once a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia. During his 2020 campaign, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses.
“I’m not going to lie. This is a moment that many of us enjoy,” Saudi businessman and royal family member Prince Talal Al-Faisal said in an interview. Like many Saudis, the crown prince said he felt that negative news reports about his country were often unfair or inaccurate.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s hopeless,” he says. “And moments like this make you think, ‘Wait a minute, if you try hard enough, it’ll all work out in the end.'”
Five years ago, this moment would have seemed virtually impossible.
In 2018, Saudi operatives killed and mutilated Saudi exile Khashoggi, who had defected to the United States, at the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul. International condemnation was sharp, and at one point it seemed as if Prince Mohammed faced isolation on the world stage.
An assessment by US intelligence agencies determined that the crown prince likely ordered the killings, but the crown prince has repeatedly denied the charge.
The killing marked the culmination of a widespread crackdown on dissidents in Saudi Arabia that continues today. However, the cold atmosphere did not last long.
Prince Mohammed had a friendly relationship Weeks after the murder of President Donald J. Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the president released a statement defending the prince. “We may never know all the facts about the murders,” the newspaper said.
In the same statement, Trump argued that protecting US-Saudi relations is essential to ensuring Saudi cooperation on oil prices, military spending and other investments in the US.
Within months, U.S. and European chief executives who had canceled meetings in Saudi Arabia quietly returned. Prince Mohammed told visitors of his determination to push ahead with plans to diversify the conservative Islamic kingdom’s economy and open it up socially.
Foreign leaders also began to return home for visits. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which manages about $650 billion in assets, continued to roll out high-profile investments around the world, including LIV Golf.
Prince Talal says: “Like it or not, we are at the center of many things happening around the world.”
Saudi Arabia’s attempts to enter the golf world have previously included an approach to launching a partnership with the PGA Tour. But that approach was rejected, and Monaghan and his deputies arrived after the introduction of rival LIV Golf last year — which sparked a painful legal battle that ultimately ended with PGA Tour coaches and Saudi officials. which sparked a series of secret meetings with around it.
Saudi Arabia is getting used to seeing its former critics turn around.
In 2018, after Khashoggi’s murder, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called Prince Mohammed “toxic” and a “wrecking ball” and said he would never visit Saudi Arabia “as long as this man is in power.” I swore. But in April, Graham visited the Saudi capital Riyadh and was photographed smiling with Crown Prince Mohammed.
“The situation in Saudi Arabia is changing for the better very quickly.” he told ABC after his visit. “His vision for this country is economically transformative.”
Indeed, in five years, Prince Mohammed has made serious strides toward diversifying his oil-dependent economy, investing in mining, tourism and entertainment. Under him, the country abolished the driving ban for women, greatly relaxed gender discrimination, and even promoted electronic music raves in the desert, tearing apart the notion of what was possible in the kingdom.
“Keeping pace with Saudi Arabia is a challenge not only for non-Saudi people, but also for Saudis themselves,” said Bader Al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Kuwait University. “We hope that this shock and awe-inspiring approach will yield results sooner than any previous wave in Saudi history,” he added.
Brinken will travel to Saudi Arabia this week to attend a rally of the global coalition against the Islamic State terrorist group. For Crown Prince Mohammed, the summit will be another opportunity for him to exercise his leadership.
He was keen for Saudi Arabia to avoid its past dependence on the United States, the main guarantor of its security.
“Today, this relationship resembles the relationship between the United States and some of its European partners,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf Studies Institute in Washington. “Security cooperation is important and maintained by both sides, but in a world where power is dispersed and the United States is fighting more cautiously, Saudi Arabia is striving to become a significant regional and international actor. ing.”
Prince Mohammed welcomed the visit of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a few days before Mr Blinken arrived on Tuesday. Next week, the Saudi Ministry of Investment will host a large rally of Arab and Chinese businessmen.
And for at least a few days, the kingdom can continue to bask in the brilliance of golf victories.
The head of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, will also head the board of the new golf entity, which will have a majority of seats on the PGA Tour. The Wealth Fund will now have exclusive rights to invest in the new company, paving the way for increased investment over the next few years.
The deal protects golf enthusiast Al Rumayyan from the prospect of being dethroned and scrutinized in U.S. courts during a legal battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf that preceded the deal. be.
The sovereign wealth fund also achieved rapid results in its investment in English football club Newcastle United, which qualified for the UEFA Champions League just 18 months after its acquisition.
Critics have accused Saudi Arabia of using its spending power in the sports sector to distract from its poor human rights record, an allegation denied by Saudi officials.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a meeting with Prince Mohammed on Tuesday that Mr Brinken “underscored that progress on human rights issues will strengthen bilateral ties.”
But for Saudis whose families remain imprisoned and subject to repression, such words offer little comfort.
Saudi-American dual citizen Abdullah Al-Qahtani has heard nothing from his father. Mohammed Al QattaniSince disappearing shortly before he was scheduled to be released from a Saudi prison in October. He had served a 10-year prison sentence in connection with founding a human rights organization.
“We are getting to the point where all the doors are closing before our eyes,” youngster Al Qahtani said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday. “What I want is to bring his problem to the surface because they have to know. I have to bring up the situation.”
Alan Blinder Contributed to a report from Atlanta.