Is there anything the Saudi Arabian government can’t get away with?
Over the last few years, the Saudi government has dismembered a Washington Post columnist and US resident, waged a gruesome war on a neighboring country facilitated by multiple US administrations, cozied up openly with Washington’s chief global rivals at its expense, and repeatedly humiliated the current US president, theoretically the most powerful single human being in the world — all while revelations slowly dripped out showing that the Saudi government was directly complicit in the September 11 attacks.
In spite of it all, the US government still has friendly ties with the brutal Saudi monarchy and continues to enable its deadly blockade of Yemen that is starving that country’s people. In fact, President Joe Biden stepped in to grant the Saudi crown prince legal immunity over assassinating an American columnist, and he just dispatched the top US diplomat to Saudi Arabia for an exceedingly friendly visit, part of the Biden administration’s determination to normalize relations between the Gulf state monarchy and Israel.
But maybe the most eye-catching Saudi-related news of the last year has revolved around the LIV Golf tour, backed by the government’s sovereign wealth fund. LIV Golf inked a commercial merger with the American PGA Tour, after months of litigation and a public spat that was growing nastier by the second before the deal.
Swimming in a near-bottomless well of oil-stained money, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf has been throwing golf bags full of cash at some of the sport’s top players to lure them over, some of whom outright quit the PGA Tour, leading the organization to suspend seventeen of its players in reprisal. LIV Golf and some of its superstar defectors, including golfer Phil Mickelson, in turn sued the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) over the suspensions, claiming the PGA Tour was abusing monopoly power to crush its competition. This triggered a countersuit that charged LIV with paying players “astronomical sums of money to induce them to breach their contracts” and to “sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities.”
The Saudi government’s atrocious human rights record became more and more prominent in the PGA Tour’s campaign against LIV, with PGA’s public relations firm accusing LIV of trying to “build an intelligence file” on the families of September 11 victims and the PGA Tour trying to obtain information about Saudi complicity in the terrorist attacks from LIV’s DC-based consulting firm. The chair of the 9/11 Families United organization denounced the defecting players for having “made a choice to turn their backs on their country,” while PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan invoked the families in criticizing the suspended players, asking them if they’ve ever “had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour.”
The Saudi government has indeed been using sports as a vehicle to burnish its soft power and rehabilitate its dreadful public image, dating back at least to the billion-dollar deal it inked with World Wrestling Entertainment in 2018 for a series of high-profile wrestling pay-per-views. But between making “sportswashing” a household term, the public involvement of September 11 families, and lawsuits that threatened to expose damaging details about the kingdom, the whole snafu jeopardized whatever PR gains were originally meant to have been made.
And then, just like that, it was over. After seven weeks of secret meetings brokered by Jimmy Dunne, an investment banker who had dozens of his workers die on September 11, the two mortal enemies suddenly announced in June that they were merging. The lawsuits were dropped, the recriminations were halted, and all — and that means all — was forgiven.
“Nobody is perfect,” said golfer Bryson DeChambeau, who had signed a deal with LIV reportedly worth $125 million.
“If someone can find someone that unequivocally was involved with [the attack], I’ll kill him myself,” Dunne assured the press. (His late employees surely wouldn’t have wanted something like their murder to stand in the way of a good business deal.)
The PGA Tour is now dealing with a public relations fiasco of its own, with Monahan denounced as a hypocrite by September 11 victims’ families and labeled a “piece of shit” by Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy (who made sure to clarify that he would gladly accept the Saudi money if they offered him $1 billion, just not an amount like $5 million). And it’s still far from clear if the merger will go ahead, with the US Senate in opposition and the Justice Department examining it on antitrust grounds.
But despite that encouraging pushback, it’s a sad reflection of the political landscape that these Saudi plans, which date back to 2021, were even able to get this far. If the Russian government had started a rival golf tour and threw money at a bunch of famous players, it’s hard to imagine it would have poached enough of them to draw the PGA Tour’s ire, let alone merge with the organization in a lucrative partnership. In a political climate where so much as setting a book in 1930s Siberia is met with apocalyptic levels of outrage, the weight of moral censure for anything of the sort would have likely been total and overwhelming.
Yet by every measure, the Saudi government is even worse than Vladimir Putin’s. It’s far more socially reactionary, less democratic, and vastly more repressive toward its people — and it has been waging an even more brutal war on its neighbor for roughly eight times as long and with an even bigger death toll. And, as bad as the Kremlin is, it so far hasn’t been complicit in the worst attack on US soil that left thousands of Americans dead, as the Saudi government was.
Even so, not only are Saudi royals and their government able to buy soccer teams, lure entertainment promotions for free PR, and enmesh themselves in the world’s premier golf organization headquartered in the United States, they’re regularly feted by Washington, where their powerful lobby buys influence daily and where they are granted glossy whitewashing by some of the nation’s leading newspapers. In fact, at this very moment, the Biden administration is spending significant political capital to try to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, despite considerable security risks and uncertain upsides.
Despite all the dings the Saudi government’s image has taken these past few years, it’s still not even viewed as a global pariah, let alone treated like one by those in power — which is why someone like Portnoy can, in the same breath that he admits he’d take Saudi money if the price was right, say he wouldn’t play in a golf tournament organized by Putin “for $100 billion.”
At the end of the day, we live in a world where, for as much as US officials talk about democracy and human rights, most things — including the way a despotic government is perceived by ordinary, nonpolitical people — come down to a question of wealth, resources, and power. With the rise of China as a global power providing an alternative to the United States, despots like Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who happen to have their hands on the tap for oil production can feel free to do things like threaten the US president or smother the sound of moral outrage with a massive pillow of cash.
It’s hard to imagine any other government getting away with the things the Saudi monarchy has gotten away with over the past few years and decades. But then, we’ve chosen to live with a global political economy and a type of politics in the United States that makes it easy for them to do so. We can still choose another.