‘We’ll keep on sportswashing’: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince says he ‘doesn’t care’ about criticism of the Gulf kingdom’s investment in Newcastle and golf – as long as it grows their GDP
- The country’s most visible leader shared his thoughts in a televised interview
- Saudi investment into the sports industry has become increasingly prevalent
- Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast ‘It’s All Kicking Off!’
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has brushed off accusations of the Kingdom’s ‘sportswashing’ claiming that he ‘doesn’t care’ about the term.
The nation has pursued a sports-centric growth agenda over the past five years as Saudi Arabia itself has played host to a wealth of events from boxing matches to football tournaments.
The Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF) has been at the centre of a number of high-profile sporting acquistions, taking over Newcastle in November 2021, and launching the lucrative and controversial LIV Golf series the following year – which later merged with PGA Tour and DP World Tour this June.
Saudi Arabia’s movements in the industry have been seen by some as an attempt to burnish the country’s reputation and shift focus away from its human rights violations.
But the crown prince – who also serves as his nation’s prime minister – was adamant that the term had little meaning to him in pursuit of financial growth.
Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that he ‘doesn’t care’ about sportswashing accusations
Saudi Arabia has been accused of using heavy investment in myriad different sports to burnish its reputation and draw attention from allegations of human rights violations
Investment in the rebel LIV Golf series later saw the PIF pull off a shocking merger with the PGA and DP World Tours
‘If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one per cent, then we’ll continue doing sportswashing,’ Bin Salman told Fox News. ‘I don’t care about that (term).
‘I have 1 percent growth in GDP from sport and I am aiming for another 1.5 per cent. Call it what you want – we are going to get that 1.5 per cent.’
Bin Salman’s comments were criticised by Amnesty International. ‘Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of high-profile sports businesses like Newcastle United or the PGA Tour are as much about sportswashing the country’s appalling human rights record as they are about adding one or two per cent to national GDP,’ Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Priority Campaigns and Individuals at Risk, said.
‘The huge amounts of Saudi money currently sluicing through football and other sports are creating most of the headlines, but behind the drama of these transactions the Saudi authorities are busily cracking down on human rights.
‘Not caring about the sportswashing label is one thing, but Mohammed bin Salman also doesn’t seem to care about the peaceful activists languishing behind bars in Saudi Arabia, the 196 people executed in the country last year, or the personal pain of the family of Jamal Khashoggi who are still desperately hoping to see justice done in his case.
‘Only last month, news emerged that retired Saudi teacher Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi was sentenced to death by a Saudi court for his remarks on Twitter and YouTube, and meanwhile the Leeds University PhD student Salma al-Shehab is serving a huge 27-year jail sentence for tweeting her support for Saudi women’s rights activists.
‘Mohammed bin Salman’s rule has been a truly dark time for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and no amount of talk about economic visions or of an expansion into new sporting ventures should be allowed to distract from that fact.’
Criticism of Saudi’s human rights record has come from myriad groups and charities and includes allegations of exploitation of migrant workers, criminalisation of the LGBTQ+ community, the imprisonment and torture of anti-Saudi dissidents, restrictions on freedom of speech, and opposition to the ongoing war in Yemen.
In May, the SANAD Organisation flew a banner calling for all Saudi prisoners to be freed over St James’s Park during a clash between Newcastle and Arsenal.
The ‘NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing’ group protested the international fixture last week between Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica at the Tyneside ground, holding aloft posters of several young men they said were on death row in the kingdom ‘for demonstrating’.
Newcastle has been dogged with accusations of Saudi involvement in the club despite writing assurances during the takeover that the Saudi government would have no control in the running of the club, but this has since been questioned.
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The Magies chairman and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan was described as a ‘sitting minister of the government’ in a US court case involving LIV Golf earlier this year.
The club was also accused of styling last season’s third kit after the home jersey of the Saudi Arabian national team, in what Amnesty International called ‘clear evidence of the regime using Newcastle to portray a positive image’.
Al-Rumayyan is now the chair of the newly merged LIV-DP-PGA golf game, as well as overseeing the top four clubs in the Saudi Pro League – Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ahli – as they are also owned by the PIF.
Agressive investment in Saudi’s domestic football league took the lion’s share of the headlines during the summer’s transfer window, with a number of global sporting icons including Karim Benzema and Neymar Jnr signing big-money moves to play in the burgeoning league.
International interest in the Saudi Pro League has blossomed as a result of the high-profile recruits – and the eye-catching price tags to match – and the country are thought to be keen to capitalise on the interest with a bid for either the World Cup in 2030 or 2034.
Newcastle were criticised for last season’s third kit, which mimics the Saudi Arabia national team jerseys
Magpies chairman Yassir Al-Rumayyan was described as a ‘sitting member of government’
Saudi Arabia are believed to be setting their sights on building up their influence in tennis as the next area of investment, and will play host to the Next Gen ATP finals in November.
The nation has opened discussions with the WTA to host this year’s finals and have pledged to treble the prize money as they work to win their bid.
Saudi officials have long denied motives beyond financial ones behind their active movements in the world of sport, instead stating that sport is a cornerstone of the ‘Vision 2030’ strategy.
The program was launched in 2016 in an attempt to diversify the Saudi economy from dependency on oil exports.
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