Saudi Arabia is using huge sporting events to burnish its image. Critics call it “Sportswashing”

Some athletes and organizations are pocketing big fees. Others are quietly staying away.

The Saudi International Golf Tournament beginning tomorrow is just the latest of many high profile sporting events hosted in Saudi Arabia. But is it all to just cover up a dark past?

The term ‘sportswashing’ refers to when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sporting events to boost their reputation. This is becoming a popular way to try and cover up countries’ bad pasts and the world is noticing. 

In arguably one of the biggest fights in boxing history, former heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz fought Anthony Joshua in an ecstatic rematch in Saudi Arabia. But some believe holding it in Saudi Arabia was not the right choice.

Saudi Arabia’s reputation was hugely affected by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi a year ago. Khashoggi was an author, columnist for the Washington Post and a general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel who was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 by agents of the Saudi government. 

This was just the most gruesome and public of the country’s violations of human rights

The handsome and charismatic crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman had previously gone on a worldwide charm offensive, seeking to show his intention to modernize the country. International sporting events have been one strategy to create international connections and change attitudes towards the highly conservative and religious state. Events staged there include WWE Wrestling, ATP Tour Golf, Formula E racing and the Italian Super Cup. That’s not all either, we should expect to see the Dakar Rally, the Spanish Super Cup, an international tennis event and a European golf tournament to be held in Saudi Arabia early in the new year. 

Joshua batted away concerns when he was asked about how he felt about helping Saudi Arabia improve its image. “All I’m here to do is box,” Joshua told The Associated Press. He later pocketed 70 million dollars from the fight.

His promoter felt that the event was positive. Many others had their say in ‘sportswashing’, including Joshua’s promoter. “I was driving up and down the road last night, thinking of all the criticism I’ve been getting. And I passed Gucci, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Versace and Ralph Lauren,” Eddie Hearn said. “The Saudis want to show they are changing. And they want a more positive image worldwide by bringing in events. But isn’t that what they should be doing?” 

Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa had to say this about a WWE women’s match held in Saudi Arabia: “It’s definitely ‘sportswashing.’ In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are infamous for the oppression of women’s rights and ethnic and racial minority rights. What better way to attempt to change that image than an all-women’s wrestling match?” 

Saudi Arabia is set to host a major golf tournament from January 30th to February 2nd. Some big names such as five time major champion Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson will be making an appearance. Two huge competitors in golf being Tiger Woods and Rory Mcllroy are rejecting this opportunity. Tiger declined a $3 million appearance fee but never stated a reason as to why he was not going. 

Rory, who declined a $2.5 million appearance fee, did however state that it was not something that would “excite him.” He also said, “I’d much rather play in front of big golf fans and play in a tournament that really excites me.” 

But he hinted that Saudi Arabia’s reputation for human rights abuses may have also been on his mind. “100 percent there is a morality to it as well,” he said.

Image Credit: Jean Cayo/Pixabay

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