Money talks: Saudi Arabia has unleashed a soft-power blitzkrieg, can golf change its perception on global stage?

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February 07, 2021 5:15 AM

Golf Saudi is on overdrive; besides the Saudi International, the national golf association has got Aramco, the state-owned oil-producer to sponsor a four-tournament leg on the Ladies European Tour, with the finale being held in the Kingdom.

UNICEF Ambassador Paul Casey teeing off at the European Tour's 2021 Saudi InternationalUNICEF Ambassador Paul Casey teeing off at the European Tour's 2021 Saudi International

Scoff all you want, you armchair bleeding hearts, but your displeasure is unlikely to have had any bearing on your favourite European-, and PGA Tour players’ decisions to tee it up at the ongoing Saudi International. And they’re all there, with two notable exceptions — Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlRoy — who’ve taken the moral high ground, and held it, steadfastly. But besides Messrs. Woods and McIlroy, the entire legion of superheroes has descended on the sands of the Al Murooj GC in the kingdom to, well, not save the world, it has to be said, but fight for the spoils. There’s a total of $3.5 million up for grabs with the winner taking a lion’s share of half a million — enough to shake any man’s conscience — pro golfer or not. And we’re not even talking appearance money here.

While I am gushing, let me also say that this peculiar habit of ours to put golfing heroes on a pedestal and expect nothing but the finest moral and social code of conduct from them is our own folly. Yes I know it’s golf, and surely the people who play the game for a living ought to espouse its deepest traditions of honesty and honour, but please let’s just stop doing that. We nearly destroyed Tiger with our despair at what were, essentially, personal transgressions. Now why would we hope for pros to shun lucre to show solidarity with universal values of human rights. If Saudi Arabia has chosen to launder its sullied reputation on those fronts by promoting golf, then why should the players take a stand? They’re just really good athletes, not messiahs, and their job is to play golf and make money. To expect more from them is just silly.

Unfortunately, English Paul Casey, doesn’t fall into that category. The Englishman has been receiving a great deal of well-deserved flak for teeing it up this week. The reasons he’s been singled out are very pertinent: Casey is a UNICEF ambassador, and made striking statements of solidarity with children affected by the war in Yemen by refusing to participate in the inaugural edition of the event in 2019. At the time Saudi Arabia was carrying out a devastating bombing campaign in Yemen, which had turned the poor country into “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster,” according to the UN. “Signing a deal and being paid to be down there … I would be a hypocrite if I did that,” Casey had said at the time. “Anyone who says sport isn’t political, that’s rubbish. Sport is very political. I’m glad I took a stance, more so if it highlighted the issues within the region, especially next door in Yemen.”

Unlike a number of players who declined the invitation diplomatically by citing previous engagements or just making excuses, Casey’ s plain-speak, was an astonishing indictment of Saudi Arabia’s woeful human rights record, by a pro golfer, and also, what makes his volte face this year, even harder to accept. In his defence, Casey has said that golfers, or any sports stars, who publicly stay away from Saudi Arabia are only serving to harden the resolve of the authorities there not to stop their human rights abuses. It’s a better idea, he avers, to engage with the Saudis. “Things are not black and white. It’s very much a grey area. There’s not a country on the planet that meets every single rights of a child, not a single country on the planet. And so all you can hope for is that a country is on a path towards meeting as many of those as possible,” he says. I hope Casey says no more on the topic because he gets plugged deeper in this bunker every time he does. For a UNICEF Ambassador to compare Saudi Arabia with any other country, especially in light of all the children who’ve died in the kingdom’s bombings of Yemen, is, to put it mildly, quite dreadful.

Still, it’s a much better alibi, than the whole sports and politics don’t mix nonsense that’s bandied about. For the record, Yemen is still being bombed, and I don’t really see Casey’s potential diplomatic initiatives changing on that front. Far more likely that he’ll be tarrying with a much more formidable foe—his putter.

Even Amnesty International has realised that asking sports and entertainment icons not to go to Saudi Arabia is a losing battle, given the often astronomical sums of money at stake. Now the organisation urges those who’re visiting to speak out when they’re there. But there’s just no way that the very presence of these stars in the country will speak louder, and drown out any critical voices.

Meanwhile, Golf Saudi is on overdrive; besides the Saudi International, the national golf association has got Aramco, the state-owned oil-producer to sponsor a four-tournament leg on the Ladies European Tour (LET), with the finale being held in the Kingdom. Each tournament carries a one million dollar purse: money the LET can scarcely afford to refuse. Saudi Golf also started a ‘free golf for women’ initiative late last year in which a 1000 ladies were given equipment, instruction and access to the game. Incredulous but true.

Perhaps I’m wrong about all of this or the kingdom is truly reforming and opening up to the world and embracing liberal values. Perhaps golf will change the perception of Saudi Arabia on the global stage. Surely the ladies in the programme can play without a male escort? What about if they want to take a caddy who’s male? Not sure about that, but they can, after that startlingly liberal reform, at least, drive themselves to the course.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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