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Why Saudi Arabia Bought the Entire Sport of Professional Golf

On June 7th, the Professional Golf Association announced a merger with a Saudi backed rival golf legue know as LIV Golf. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, backed this deal. The chairman of the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will now serve as the chairman of this new yet-to-be named golf league.

In other words, Saudi Arabia just bought the sport of Professional Golf.

This move comes on the heels of other Saudi forays into professional sports, including the purchase of the Newcastle United Premier League soccer team in 2021.

The Saudi purchase professional golf is a clear example of an attempt to rehabilitate its public image through sports, otherwise known as “sportswashing.” Joining me to discuss this Saudi public diplomacy gambit is Alex Ward, National Security Reporter for Politico. We kick off discussing the lessons learned from Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United and then have a conversation about the PGA merger in the context of Saudi Arabia’s politics and foreign policy.

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The transcript is edited for clarity

Saudi Arabia’s Purchase of Newcastle United

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:02:43] Before we discuss the most recent news about the PGA, I wanted to go back to our previous conversation we had about Newcastle United. This is relevant to the conversation we’re going to have today because 19 months ago, the very same Saudi public investment fund that now has a dominant position in professional golf also bought Newcastle United, the English Premier League soccer team. This was controversial at the time and like the PGA merger is understood to be part of a Saudi public diplomacy effort through, “sports washing.”.

[00:03:14] So I don’t follow the Premier League, but my understanding is that Newcastle United was a perpetually mediocre team when it was bought by the Saudis. And one of my big takeaways from our conversation back then was a point you made that Saudi Arabia’s decision to purchase Newcastle United as a public diplomacy tactic would succeed or fail largely on how Newcastle United does on the soccer field. So now, with 19 months of hindsight into Saudi Arabia’s first major foray into sports washing, what do we know about that dynamic?

Alex Ward [00:03:49] So one thing I would say is that Newcastle was actually quite a good team for a really, really long time and then it went through a bit of a dry spell, bad management, etc.. But the Saudis come in and then this season, which just ended. Newcastle ends up in fourth out of 20 teams, which allows them to go to the Champions League, which for those who aren’t soccer inclined, means that they get to play in basically the best of the best annual tournament of European teams. So that’s a huge deal. Massive deal. Not on does it lead to a lot more money, which of course it’s a business at the end of the day, but it’s a prestigious tournament in which really the best teams from each country get to participate in. The point is, they went from kind of not being able to play with the big boys to now being one of the big boys in a fairly short amount of time. I don’t want to put that all on the Saudi investments. I mean, Newcastle did make some good hires, let’s say. They bought good players, but this is also down to good coaching and management and a bunch of other things. But there’s no denying the role that Saudi money played in being able to buy some of those players. So it’s not all down to Saudis. They are certainly involved in Newcastle’s very fast rise here. So just to say right, there are other teams in the Premier League not owned by the Saudis, but owned by the Qataris or the Emiratis that are successful. So in terms of public diplomacy, now Saudi Arabia gets to be connected to the success of Newcastle United. Now, you could imagine that there are going to be fans of middling British teams all go, “Hey, this guy’s got a lot of money. Can they invest in my club too?” Now, when you think of Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi or human rights violations or anything like that isn’t the first thing you think of. You think of them as possibly angel investors in a team that you love.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:48] And angel investors who are able to turn around the prospects of a team, which obviously is huge. I think it’s been probably like decades since Newcastle United made the Champions League. This is all, I think, useful background for understanding this most recent Saudi gambit purchasing a controlling stake in professional golf. I know you are a soccer fan. You follow soccer closely, but why do you suspect that the Saudi Public Investment Fund made such a major investment in golf? And what’s odd here, you know, it’s not like they’re buying a team like purchasing Newcastle United. They are taking a controlling interest in entire sport.

Why Saudi Arabia Decided to Buy the PGA

Alex Ward [00:06:32] Yeah. And that’s what’s so different here, right? I mean, if you’re a casual sports fan, you probably have a general idea that you can have foreign investors of teams, right? Americans, for example, own a lot of teams in the Premier League, right? So you have American owners alongside Saudi and Emirati, whatever, owners of British clubs. What’s new here is a foreign government basically being an owner of a sport in the United States, not a team player, but a sport. So that’s the really big sort of step back news here. Now, why golf? My guess is it’s probably the lowest barrier to entry, right? Golf is somewhat ripe for the picking. If you’re the Saudis, you probably in your heart of hearts wish you could compete or be controlling owners in the NFL or Major League Baseball or or something like that. But that requires a lot of infrastructure, not least stadiums. Right? With golf, you can just make deals with golf courses that are already existing and they don’t necessarily belong to a team.

Alex Ward [00:07:32] And so there’s an infrastructure in place and an ease in which to move into the sport. Plus, you’ve already created a league, the LIV Golf League, which was doing fairly well in competing with the PGA and the two entities went at each other’s throats in court. And so the fact that they are merging now is probably a bit of a cave on the PGA part. And I don’t have inside information here, but my guess is for the PGA and you’re looking to go to court over this or you are going to court over this, you know, the deep pockets that the Saudis have, you know, they could probably completely run you dry through a long court process. And so in this case, better to join them because you can’t beat them. I don’t think golf is probably their first choice, but it is a very good way in. Just lest we forget who owns a lot of golf courses. Former President Donald Trump, who was a big booster or is a big booster and remains and you could imagine will continue to do business with Trump family properties as part of this deal. And so there’s a political connection here to that we can’t ignore.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:44] You know, golf does have this reputation, I think, actually unfairly so as an elite sport. Does that have anything to do with it that this is maybe the Saudis attempt to ingratiate themselves with like the, you know, cigar chomping, backroom dealing kind of U.S. elite?

Alex Ward [00:09:04] I don’t think we can discount that possibility. Who plays golf, as you mentioned, politicians, captains of industry, etc.. Right. It’s usually sort of a sport for the powerful to make deals on the golf course. And so if you make a connection between business deals and Saudi political power, then yeah, that’s really helpful for them. Again, I do think if the Saudis had their druthers, they would do a sport that matter to everybody. So like a baseball or an NFL type thing. But this is pretty good too, right? You do have regular gen pop interested in golf, but at the end of the day, it is a sport that a lot of important people that will be of interest to Riyadh like to play.

Saudi Arabia’s Attempt at Sportswashing in the Context of Saudi foreign policy

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:46] So how do you interpret these events in the context of Saudi Arabian politics and foreign policy right now? Like what are some of Saudi Arabia’s key interests and goals that they are trying to pursue domestically and internationally? And how might taking over the sport of golf or also even like a team in the Premier League, help to serve those goals?

Alex Ward [00:10:10] Well, I guess I want to be clear that the goal is even bigger than that. So let me take a step back. Right. Saudi Arabia’s reputation, or rather, I should say, the relationship with the United States for decades is pretty transactional. On one thing, the United States would provide security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia would provide energy in the form of oil to the United States. Now, that relationship started to change on two sort of tracks one, the U.S. to produce a lot more of its energy. So it doesn’t need Saudi Arabia as much. And then Saudi Arabia has many more customers. It can sell chips. It doesn’t need the United States as much. Add to that a reputation ding and quite a big one to Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, where politicians from both sides of the aisle, plus the general population, started to be quite skeptical of Saudi Arabia. Now, this was a problem for Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a de facto ruler who, according to our own CIA, orchestrated the Khashoggi murder. It’s a problem for him because he is trying to rebrand Saudi Arabia. He’s trying to make it this technology hub, this sports hub, this place that could bring in tons of foreign investment that people could see as sort of a modern nation and no longer a monarchy for which the 12th century is too soon. So the Khashoggi thing dinged that grant. So the best way to quickly change the global conversation about Saudi Arabia was through sports, right? Soccer is a global sport. It reaches everybody. The Premier League is, I’m pretty sure, the most popular league in the entire world. I would assume Spain is probably a close second, but I think the Premier League in England is probably the most marketable at this point. And then you’ve got golf in the United States, which of course is a country that still needs some love. Republicans, in the form of Donald Trump, are still a fan of Saudi Arabia. But Joe Biden, of course, was more skeptical of Saudi Arabia, even though the US-Saudi relationship has thought a bit under his leadership. But all this to say is that the Saudis have massive future plans and ambitious future plans. He wants to create like a fully technological hub. He wants a city of the future. He wants people to see Saudi Arabia as a modern state. So it’s not just the Premier League, it’s not just golf. He’s also looking to host the World Cup in 2030. He’s hoping to host Olympics down the line at other major sports tournaments. So he’s going to try to get to win hearts and minds through sports. That seems to be the early and often strategy.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:33] So, I mean, if I’m surveying US-Saudi relations and I’m thinking of like the near term future, the next few years of U.S.. Saudi relations. I mean, you have here a really pretty sour relationship between Biden and the Saudis. So you were, I believe, with Biden when he visited Saudi Arabia, where you saw sort of firsthand the kind of cool relationship I think they to have. And there’s been reporting recently even about how MBS wants to kind of put the screws to Biden in terms of energy production. How might the purchase of the PGA or professional golf in general sort of change that dynamic?

Alex Ward [00:13:26] I don’t think the Venn diagram between like golf fans and Democrats is pretty strong. I mean, I’m sure there are a lot of Democrats who play golf and like golf, but it’s not necessarily a sport associated with the left. I would say that I don’t think golf is going to necessarily ingratiate Saudi Arabia more with this administration. This administration’s already doing quite a bit to thaw the relations you have. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, currently in Saudi Arabia, met with NBC’s national soccer adviser. Jake Sullivan, was in the kingdom last month. And if you talk to the administration, they’ll say, look, it’s not just the oil relationship anymore. We’re talking about 5G, we’re talking about six G, we’re talking about making sure the Yemen war doesn’t continue. We’re talking about improvements in human rights. We’re talking about all other kinds of deals here. The relationship has expanded beyond the narrowness of the most recent two decades. So, you know, do I think the live golf deal is going to, like, turbocharge some sort of moment of us Saudi Arabia bonhomie? I don’t believe it will. It’s sort of kind of going on its own. But you could imagine that over time, especially as fans come to like the new golf, if that is indeed what happens. And then Saudi Arabia does something down the line that if an administration doesn’t like, it could be harder for the administration to or a future administration to reprimand or sort of distance Washington from Riyadh, because you’ll have a public that’s like, hey, those are good guys, right? I like my sport. I like what I’m seeing. Don’t ruin this. For me, it’s more of a future play than it is a more near-term play.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:08] And, you know, in the future, I foresee like a potential point of friction between Republicans and the Saudis. On the one hand, of course, you have Donald Trump, who’s very friendly with the Saudis. But the broader trajectory of Saudi foreign policy in the Middle East over the last several months has been one towards rapprochement/ You have like just a warming of relations between the two. And you see that manifested, for example, in bringing Assad out from the cold in Syria and trying to get him back into the fold in the Arab League. And of course, you have a number of members of the Republican foreign policy establishment who are just like hardcore anti Iran. So you do see potential in the future like a point of friction. And I do wonder if efforts at public diplomacy like this are intended down the road to help soften those divides in a way.

Alex Ward [00:16:11] It’s completely possible, though, I think, you know, in that specific case, like the Iran rapprochement, Iran program, if you will, it is true that Republicans and a lot of Democrats are not fans of Iran, and there’s good reason for that. But what they probably want less or would probably dislike more is better said is that there be sort of a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And so if the two get along to a certain extent, that minimizes the American role in the region, which seems to be a priority for both parties. But you’re right. I mean, I think it’s sort of important for Saudi to have greater investment in the United States because it keeps the US tethered to the United States. And I think this is something that we need to think about a bit more, because let’s recall that after the Khashoggi murder, you know, Trump got blasted for basically saying, why would I sever ties with the Saudis? They’re pouring billions of dollars into the United States. Now, you know, he got absolutely hammered for that. But it was, in somewhat fairness to him, a pretty cold distillation of what the policy really is toward Saudi Arabia, which is as long as it gives us what we want, we’re going to kind of keep a blind eye to what it does. So in this case, you could imagine the Saudis owning a golf league by investing more in the United States. It makes it just harder for any future administration to pull away from the relationship. And it gives the Saudis more leverage to dictate the way that relationship goes.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:38] Turning back to soccer, I know recently there was this rumor that Lionel Messi, the world’s biggest soccer star, might play in a Saudi league. But it turns out he signed with the U.S. League in Miami. How do you interpret that?

Alex Ward [00:17:55] I’m still kind of surprised by this, but I’m an FC Barcelona fan. It’s the team Messi started to play for and is most associated with. So I love the man. He’s the most important soccer player of my life and in many people’s lives. But we need to note that he is a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia. So that is a deal that he had made. And it’s expected that he’s going to be one person who’s going to try to help bring the World Cup to Saudi Arabia, I believe, in 2030. So it would seem only logical that he would go to the Saudi pro league, considering just the enormous amount of money that they’d be willing to spend on it. I mean, Karim Benzema, who’s another player, just went over there to the tune of $430 million over two years. That’s not just money, that’s money.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:40] I think that’s about what they spent on Newcastle United.

Alex Ward [00:18:42] Something along those lines. So, I mean, Messi was going to get something like that, if not more. My guess is he didn’t go for a couple of reasons, but my guess is, one, to not have his reputation tarnished the more he’s been getting a lot of criticism for his Saudi tourism role. And two, is also in Saudi Arabia is a guy named Cristiano Ronaldo. And Messi’s prime in Ronaldo’s prime were when they both played for rival teams. And probably the last thing you want is to sort of rekindle that rivalry at his age of 35. So then his options were to go back to FC Barcelona or to MLS, and Barcelona’s in financial dire straits at this point, so that wasn’t going to work out, which left him Major League Soccer and then Inter Miami, co-owned by David Beckham. We should note that while Messi is leaving a bunch of money on the table by not going to Saudi Arabia, he’s getting an unprecedented deal by coming to the US. Not only will they lift salary caps for him only, he’s also going to get a cut of any new subscriber or something along these lines to Apple TV Plus because they own the rights to show all Major League Soccer or Moleskin. He’s also going to get some sort of cut between MLS and Adidas. He stands to still make a bunch of money to bring it all back. It is a massive blow to Saudi Arabia’s sports watching efforts because to have Messi, Ronaldo and Benzema, arguably three of the top five players of the last decade or so, would have been a massive coup for them.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:12] So that was an example of a failed sports washing effort. And, you know, looking forward over the next couple years, what sort of indicators will you look at to suggest to you whether Saudi Arabia’s attempts to control professional golf will be a success or failure?

Alex Ward [00:20:34] I mean, let’s see if you start having, you know, major sports stars being unwilling to criticize Saudi Arabia. Think of it this way with the NBA, right? LeBron James got hammered for being unwilling to criticize China because China is such a major market for the NBA. So you could imagine going forward that, you know, Saudi Arabia does something bad and a golf star will be asked about it and they won’t say anything bad, in which case Saudi Arabia is effectively bought, if not complements, just not getting hammered by prominent figures. So I think that would be the biggest sign. You could also see if you have sports stars start going to Saudi Arabia and saying what a great place this is, you should come visit is so modern and so new. We are seeing that already with some other Gulf monarchies. When the players or the coaches of the teams they owned go over there and talk about just how great a time they’re having there. It’s a PR boost, right? So I think if you see, you know, a lowering of criticism and a heightening of praise, that will show some pretty early PR wins. But I think one of the hardest pieces of evidence that we could see is, again, the Saudis do something bad and even politicians struggle to sort of distance from it. So I think all of these are sort of longer term plays, right? Saudi Arabia’s playing the long game here, but I would imagine there will be some shorter.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:55] Thank you so much for your time. This is great.

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