In the days of the Roman Coliseum, they called it “Bread and Circuses” – leaders using the superficial appeal of entertainment to distract citizens from genuine problems. Sportswashing is a term used today to describe the use of competitions, teams, and stadiums to polish a person’s reputation and image. Saudi Arabia, a nation without an Olympic gold medal, has unsurprisingly become a major force in world sport, hosting competitions, purchasing teams, and luring athletes with exorbitant salaries. Is this investment, as its leaders claim, an effort to diversify the economy and appeal to younger citizens? Or is it done to cover up the murder, authoritarian rule, and/or violations of human rights? We went to the Kingdom to see what the Saudis and their neighbors were getting for their money as well as the new hub of the sports world.
Although Argentina may have won the World Cup in December, it wasn’t the only nation to achieve great success. The Gulf State of Qatar, which was a contentious choice to host, invested more than $200 billion in staging the event and dribbled past criticism over its appalling human rights record. And another winner was next door. Saudi Arabia fielded the lone team that defeated Argentina, a victory lauded throughout the Arab world, not least by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud, the nation’s minister of sports.
It was unbelievable, said Prince Abdulaziz. It was merely a benchmark that we crossed, demonstrating the idea that anything is possible if enough time, energy, and resources are dedicated to it.
After the World Cup, the unlikely kept happening. Cristiano Ronaldo, a generational star from Portugal, was persuaded to join a team in Riyadh by Saudi Arabia’s vast resources—that is, the country’s gushing oil money. Over $200 million a season is his salary. In other words, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Aaron Judge, and Patrick Mahomes collectively make about $200 million a year as professional athletes.
The opening bell for Saudi Arabia’s investment in global sports sounded three years ago with “The Clash on the Dunes,” a heavyweight title fight.
The Kingdom held the most lucrative horse race in history a few months later.
Along with Formula 1 racing, there is a 10-year contract with the WWE. But to many, these Saudi Arabian mega-events are merely money-losing publicity stunts that hide authoritarian rule and repression while enhancing a nation’s image.
Jon Wertheim: You may be familiar with the term “sportswashing,” which refers to the notion that nations can use sports to conceal illegal activity. Do you think a nation can utilize sports in this way?
None at all, said Prince Abdulaziz. That and that term are not things I agree with. Because in my opinion traveling to different regions of the world brings people together. Everyone should visit Saudi Arabia, take a look at it for what it is, and then make a decision. You should definitely see it for yourself; if not, that’s fine.
To see this unlikely sports hub for ourselves is precisely why we traveled to Saudi Arabia in the latter part of last year. December is the off-season for pro tennis, yet Riyadh was the site of an exhibition, studded with top 10 stars and embroidered with local touches… falcons enlisted to help with the draw ceremony. Nick Kyrgios of Australia was direct, but that wasn’t the real draw.
What ultimately led you here, interviewer?
I won’t lie—the money is pretty good, according to Nick Kyrgios.
The players were paid millions of dollars just to participate, despite the stadiums being deserts of empty seats and the lack of television rights, which are typically the lifeblood of sports. And Taylor Fritz, a Californian, received $1 million in prize money for winning the weekend competition.
Not just events are hosted by the Saudis. They purchased Newcastle United, an English Premier League soccer team, through the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. They were playing a local team when we saw them, and they were wearing the Saudi flag’s green uniforms instead of their customary striped ones.
The $2.5 billion LIV Tour, which has divided golf, is currently Saudi Arabia’s largest sports swing. Dismissing this rival to the PGA Tour as quote “an endless pit money,” Tiger Woods declined an offer of $800,000,000 from the Saudis to join LIV. Numerous other elite athletes, like Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, who were both paid in excess of $100 million each, did switch their tour allegiances.
Jon Wertheim: This Saudi money influx into sports is unquestionably disruptive. The world of sports is being completely transformed by it. Is that your goal, really?
None at all, said Prince Abdulaziz. The sport gains a lot from it.
But you must be aware of the implications, says Jon Wertheim. It’s a significant change in the economy when LIV Golf event winners earn many times what Tiger Woods did the last time he won the Masters.
Prince Abdulaziz: If the impact of growing sports participation and interest in that sport is growing, then why not, in my opinion?
The sports minister insists that the massive investment is an essential pillar of what is called “Vision 2030:” a $7 trillion plan by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, or MBS, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, to diversify the economy away from oil while loosening some of its most onerous social customs and laws. Women are now able to travel without a male guardian, drive, and hold passports with their heads exposed.
Young Saudis, both men and women, are taking up sport on the nation’s fields and in its gyms and recreation facilities. Rasha Al Khamis is the first female boxing coach in the nation who is certified, and so are their mothers. Back in 2019 she attended the”Clash on the Dunes”fight.
This is your nation, says Jon Wertheim. You aren’t seeing these two international icons on television. They are being watched in real time right now. What was that like?
Rasha Al Khamis: I never imagined myself traveling by car, attending the fight, and participating in it within my own nation. That is a significant transformation, to put it mildly. And you can actually feel the change taking place.
However, these adjustments have a price. The Saudi woman-to-drive movement was led by Loujain Al-Hathloul, who was punished for her activism by being detained, accused of terrorism, and sentenced to prison, where she claims she was tortured. She is not permitted to leave the country, even after her release. Lina, who is her sister and is in exile, spoke with us over the phone.
Lina Al-Hathloul: When we discuss sports, it goes without saying that Saudi Arabians want to be entertained. We really do want this. But not at the expense of, or in violation of, our liberties. We don’t want to be living in constant fear, wondering if someone will break into our home tomorrow and steal either our daughter or sister. I’m not interested in residing in this nation. I want to reside in a place where I truly feel free.
Even though they have elaborate sporting events?
Lina Al-Hathloul: I desire both.
According to her, the harsh treatment of her sister highlights a startling paradox: political repression in Saudi Arabia has gotten worse at a time when social freedoms have increased.
You’re calling this window dressing, Jon Wertheim. This is just a matter of appearance. Mass executions and unprecedented repression are taking place in the shadows of the games.
Of course, says Lina Al-Hathloul. This is exactly what is going on.
Beyond sports, there has been a cultural shift. Who would have guessed that Saudi Arabia would begin hosting an annual rave in the desert? Headliners included Bruno Mars and DJ Khaled. The three are intertwined: sports, entertainment, and tourism. The crown prince sought out Jerry Inzerillo, an American entrepreneur, to marry it all.
What is a Brooklynian doing in a setting like this, asks Jon Wertheim.
Making magic and a welcoming space for everyone to visit the kingdom’s birthplace are two things Jerry Inzerillo says he enjoys doing. Salam-Alaikum, these are exciting times.
Inzerillo established Atlantis in the Bahamas during his career in hospitality and entertainment. Jerry has met just about any international celebrity you can think of.
Jerry Inzerillo: I’ve worked in tourism for five decades. It’s my responsibility to make people feel welcome and to spread joy and celebration. We want people to visit Saudi Arabia with the implementation of Vision 2030.
He is currently in charge of a massive $63 billion construction project that will transform the location of the founding of the Saudi state into a modern Xanadu with 100,000 homes, opulent hotels, and gourmet restaurants. Inzerillo was questioned about how comfortable he felt representing this autocracy. He said he concentrates on the good.
Jerry Inzerillo: As you may know, I attended school in Las Vegas. In the gambling industry, it’s said that when you’re far ahead, you’re playing with house money.
You winning, Jon Wertheim?
Oh, I’m not only winning, I’ve won, said Jerry Inzerillo.
You’re aware of the old country western song “Dance with the one who brought ya,” Jerry Inzerillo?’
Who gave you birth, Jon Wertheim?
Who brought me here, Jerry Inzerillo?
Jon Wertheim: Yeah.
Jerry Inzerillo: Vision 2030, a generous, well-liked monarch, and a brilliant, vivacious crown prince.
But the crown prince’s less honorable deeds have damaged the nation’s reputation, hastening and complicating its entry into sports while also tarnishing the nation’s reputation. According to a CIA report, MBS gave his approval to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment in 2018. Executions have significantly increased under MBS’ rule, including a mass beheading of 81 people in one day in March. Even on Twitter, the slightest criticism of the government has been met with detention, torture, and lengthy, arbitrary prison terms.
We have heard a lot about transition, says Jon Wertheim. Our own eyes have witnessed it. The issue is that this nation is currently unfit to host international sporting events.
Prince Abdulaziz: We’re not saying we’re perfect, but what I’m saying is that these things aid in securing a better future for our people.
Jon Wertheim: I don’t believe any country would claim to be perfect, but are you asserting that every nation has a leader who, according to the CIA, has authorized the murder of a journalist? Do you mean to say that 81 people are beheaded every day, worldwide? And if the response is negative, doesn’t that render this whataboutism, this relative argument, and others like it irrelevant?
Prince Abdulaziz: Let’s look at the positive aspects of this, is what I’m trying to say.’ And, you know, you’re just highlighting certain subjects that, if I go on, you know, we had the mass shooting in the United States a few weeks ago. Does that imply that the United States won’t host the World Cup?? No, we should visit America. People need to come together.
A mass shooting is not a government actor, according to Jon Wertheim. That much should be made clear.
Prince Abdulaziz: People died, but still, whatever. But my point is that if we only consider the negative aspects, we should take no action.
Jon Wertheim: Do you believe there are any universals or fundamental requirements?
Prince Abdulaziz: As I previously stated, there are numerous problems with numerous nations. You then state that the order was given by the crown prince, which is untrue. There’s no proof of that– as we speak–
Jon Wertheim: You’re denying that the CIA’s report that says this was ordered and approved–
If you look at the CIA report, Prince Abdulaziz, I don’t believe that is what is actually stated there.
The CIA report concluded: “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “approved an operation…. to capture or kill a Saudi journalist named Jamal Khashoggi.”
However, the games continue. Just last month, FIFA—the organization that oversees soccer and isn’t known for standing on moral high ground—responded to player protests by rejecting Saudi Tourism’s sponsorship offer for the Women’s World Cup this summer. These moral conundrums will only worsen.
Jon Wertheim: A top-tier tennis competition was taking place when we were in Saudi Arabia, and a top-tier golf competition had just ended. Attended a concert by Bruno Mars. What advice would you give the athletes and entertainers who will be competing and performing here?
Why would you travel to Saudi Arabia and remain silent about what is happening there, asks Lina Al-Hathloul? Why won’t you speak for the families who are unable to speak as well as the prisoners who have been placed under house arrest and given a voice? Since you become a part of this system of cover-up when you travel to Saudi Arabia.
Jon Wertheim: Why do you believe that so much money is being invested in this kind of sport?
According to Lina Al-Hathloul, the Saudi government, regime, and MBS want people to think of Ronaldo rather than Khashoggi when they think of Saudi Arabia.
Jon Wertheim: That’s now the association. From the journalist who was killed to the top soccer player, we have come full circle.
Indeed, yes, said Lina Al-Hathloul. Unfortunately.