Saudi interest in sports..political motives or real investment? … The Middle East

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Over the past decade, GCC countries have focused on investing in sporting events as part of their economic diversification strategy away from fossil fuels.

Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund established a new golf tournament called “LIV Golf” as a competitor to the American Professional Golfers Association. In response, the American Golf Association suspended the membership of players who registered to participate in the new tournament, and the “DP World Championship and European Tour of Golf” imposed fines on members who participated in the Saudi-backed tournament .

One of the most notorious dissidents is Phil Mickelson, who acknowledged that the Saudis had a terrible human rights record but said it was “any opportunity”. Amnesty International described the players who signed contracts with “LIV Golf” as “choosing to be a tool for Saudi sports.” The term refers to the use of sport to divert public attention from controversial government activities and to improve the image of authoritarian regimes.

Saudi officials stress that investments in golf and other sports, especially football, are driven by a sincere passion for the sport that is rooted in the local sports culture. However, the fact remains that the competition between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE is reforming the world of international sports and poisoning the environment in which professional players compete against each other.

diversion tactics

Soccer is the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia, and the country has more than 150 soccer clubs. In 1956, the government formed the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, at the height of the Cold War between Arab countries, the rise of Arab nationalism and the rise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as a strong Arab leader.

During this time, the rift between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal caused concern in the kingdom. Global political ideas began to infiltrate the Saudi community with the entry of thousands of Arab expatriates into the country, leading to the emergence of a Saudi left-wing movement influenced by the rise of the giant oil company “Aramco” , which has a liberal influence on the country.

The biggest concern for the Saudi royal family was the growing demands to transform the state into a constitutional monarchy. The government and the security institution tried to divert the public’s attention from politics by using sport as a distraction. The government therefore instituted two annual soccer tournaments: the Crown Prince’s Cup in 1956 and the Kings’ Cup the following year.

More recently, fears of an overflow from the Arab Spring have led to a massive increase in Saudi funding for sporting events. In 2013, the Saudi Super Cup joined the growing list of major football events in the Kingdom. In 2017, bin Salman canceled the Crown Prince’s Cup and replaced it with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman League.

economic motives

These investments are not only intended as a diversion, but there are major economic drivers, which are also linked to the long-term competition between the GCC countries.

One of the goals of the Gulf Cooperation Council when it was created in 1981 was to integrate the economies of the member states, but instead of each country specializing in a different production area and then exchanging goods, they duplicated each other’s products and services, which significantly reduces the possibility of economic cooperation.

For example, when Saudi Arabia invests in a petrochemical complex, other GCC countries build similar facilities, even if they are not economically viable due to their small population. The competition has expanded to include the construction of international ports and airports, airlines and universities, and this pattern has expanded to include the sports arena.

In 2005, Qatar established the 250-hectare “Aspire Zone” sports complex in Doha. In 2010 it was announced that the FIFA World Cup in 2022 will be hosted. It has sparked intense competition with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over who could attract more interest in the sports world.

While Qatar has focused on sports as part of soft power efforts to put itself on the world map and keep its Gulf neighbors with whom it shares a difficult history in check, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s focus on sports has been largely driven by economic considerations.

Emirates Airlines in Dubai has acquired sponsorship rights for several football teams, led by Arsenal and Real Madrid. At the same time, the Emirates “Etihad” company (the national airline of the United Arab Emirates) sponsored Manchester City Club, the HSBC Golf Championship and Formula 1.

Three years ago, Saudi Arabia hosted a $ 50 million boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz, which marked an ambitious sports policy around the Neom City project, a massive initiative that has been under construction since 2019 that is an ultra- modern sports city. Officials are also studying the establishment of a Saudi version of the FIFA World Cup.

Saudi Arabia acquired Newcastle United in Britain last year for $ 400 million. “The sky is our ceiling when it comes to hosting sporting events,” Saudi Sports Minister Abdulaziz bin Turki said.

Reputation sport was?

Many Saudi sports investments, including the “Liv Golf” tournament, are funded by the Public Investment Fund, which was created in 1971 and now manages assets of up to $ 480 billion. Some of his major investments include the Saudi National Bank and the Saudi Telecom Company, and he is also responsible for “Vision 2030”, which includes the NEOM initiative.

Saudi investments in LIV Golf amount to $ 2 billion, which is part of the “Vision 2030” campaign, and although the launch of these initiatives is driven in part by a desire to gain prestige, these projects do have economic value. For example, the “LIV Golf” tournament can generate significant advertising revenue as a major sporting event with internationally recognized players.

There is no denying that the heinous murder of Saudi journalist “Jamal Khashoggi” has tarnished the image of the Saudi crown prince and that he is now campaigning to rehabilitate his public image. But it is wrong to claim – as some in the Western media do – that an investment in LIV Golf was merely a sports reputation.

There is superficiality in the criticism leveled at LIV Gulf, especially that Saudi Arabia is trying to divert attention from its appalling human rights record. The controversy surrounding LIV Golf stems mostly from the fact that Saudi Arabia has abundant financial resources that enable it to beat its competitors by attracting the best players in the world.

The prize money is $ 25 million, including $ 20 million for individual titles (the first three winners), while the remaining $ 5 million is split among the first three teams, which seems to be the reason why the stars of the game rushed to to participate in “LIV Golf”, even if it cost them. Withdraw from membership at the world’s oldest professional golf regulator.

Unlike football, golf is a luxury activity associated with the rich, especially in developed countries. The real threat lies in LIV Golf’s ability to disrupt the status quo in an established industry. By attracting the best players in the golf world as well as their fans and communities, Liv Golf threatens to monopolize the sport.

Furthermore, Vision 2030 offers no new or innovative plans to transform the kingdom into a productive economy, and the vision’s three main objectives – a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation – are irrational in a country where tribal divisions are. increasing and the economy largely dependent on expatriates.

The Kingdom focuses on tourism and recreation-related activities (including sports) that do not require the participation of Saudis themselves. Saudi Arabia may therefore dominate the golf industry, but it will not bring modernity to the country itself.

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