Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The White House had no comment on Tuesday’s bombshell announcement that the PGA Tour had ended its bitter dispute and will partner with the Saudi backed LIV Golf giving the Kingdom unprecedented influence over the future of the game and the way it’s organized in the United States. And whatever President Joe Biden’s personal feelings about the country he once described as a pariah nation, these days he’s keeping his thoughts to himself.
There is much we don’t know about how this partnership will play out, but one thing is clear: this Saudi round with the PGA Tour may be sportswashing on a grand scale, but it’s also far more than that. Indeed, it’s part of a broader 360-degree projection of hard and soft power designed to make Saudi Arabia a key player in the region and a pivotal one abroad with ties to all comers large and small.
The message to Washington is unmistakably clear: we’ve got influence even in your own backyard, and you’re not the only game in town.
Sportswashing on steroids
One can be easily forgiven for assuming that recent Saudi forays into the word of sport were part of an effort to distract attention from a serial record of suppression and violation of human rights, typified by the horrific murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, whose remains have never been found. The Saudis are among the world’s leaders in the death penalty, carrying out 81 executions in a single day last year.
Sportswashing is certainly nothing new. The Nazis did it with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the Russians at Sochi in 2014. What separates the Saudis is the sheer scale of the enterprise. With a sovereign wealth fund reportedly in excess of $500 billion, they have purchased an English Premier League soccer club, drawn some of the sport’s greatest stars (notably Cristiano Ronaldo) to teams they now control, sponsored Formula One racing and invested in women’s golf.
The agreement to merge LIV Golf with the PGA Tour promises to take the Saudis to a whole new level, elevating them from a disrupter on the fringes of global sport to a presence inside the storied mainstream of American golf.
Yet, these days, the sad truth is that Saudi Arabia has no need for sportswashing. Within a year or so of Khashoggi’s 2018 murder, presidents, prime ministers and business leaders were already flocking to Saudi Arabia for the country’s so-called Davos-in-the-desert investment summit. And in December 2019, Saudi Arabia became president of the G-20, hosting a virtual summit because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pressure on Saudi Arabia remains only in a few stalwart corners. The 9/11 families still raise their voices and The Washington Post, which employed Khashoggi, remains a critic. Some Democrats in Congress such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut speak out. On the golf deal, Blumenthal tweeted Tuesday: “This merger seems to betray victims of human rights abuses, 9/11 families, & others.”
But for all practical purposes, the Saudis have won. The world has moved on. Biden held his nose last summer, visiting the kingdom and surviving an awkward fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS). It’s basically business as usual. And money and hydrocarbons have won out.
The Saudis are everywhere
The PGA-LIV deal can’t be viewed in isolation. It’s occurring against an unprecedented stretch of Saudi diplomatic activity designed to decrease its dependence on any single power. In the space of six months, MBS has strengthened Saudi relations with China, maintained his OPEC+ cooperation with Russia, reached out to Ukraine (hosting President Zelensky at an Arab League summit), agreed to a China-brokered détente with Iran, repaired relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and welcomed both representatives of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas to Saudi Arabia.
In short, the Saudis have gone their own way, reaching out to some of Washington’s erstwhile adversaries in the region and outside it and seemingly rejecting the US notion that you’re either for us or against us.
The golf deal is a reminder that “money money money” is a formidable diplomatic political tool. It’s a timely and troubling message at a moment when the Biden administration seems increasingly persuaded that the US-Saudi relationship is too big and important to fail. Within the last month, both US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have come calling.
In the mix is not only the importance of Saudi oil but also the temptation of an Israeli-Saudi deal normalizing their relations. This is not yet in the bag by any means. MBS has demands – a security guarantee, access to offensive weapons and assistance in setting up a civilian nuclear program. But a US administration that has of late been watching a flurry of Chinese activity in the Middle East from the sidelines clearly has a stake in demonstrating that it too has remained relevant to the region’s diplomacy. A US brokered deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a powerful counterpoint to China’s recently facilitated Iranian-Saudi détente.
Of course, one can hardly be shocked to learn that where’s there’s money, golf and Saudi Arabia, there just might be a Trump angle as well. Aside from MBS and the Saudis, one of the biggest potential winners from this golf deal (assuming it’s not tripped up by anti-trust challenges) is the Trump family business. The PGA – which turned away from hosting tournaments at Trump’s clubs in the US and Britain, especially after January 6 — may now be more accommodating. The former president posted on Truth Social: “Great news from LIV Golf. A big, beautiful and glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf.” Son Eric Trump said in an interview Tuesday that he expects tournaments to resume at Trump-owned courses once the merger is finalized.
George Orwell famously wrote that sport is “war minus the shooting.” And anyone following the politics of the Olympics would readily agree. What MBS is aiming at is not just to alter the image of Saudi Arabia as place known for something other than hydrocarbons and human right violations; he wants to project Saudi power and influence abroad.
What makes the PGA-LIV deal so intriguing – and potentially threatening – is that his latest play with golf has taken him directly into America’s backyard, its domestic politics where the Saudi image is still tied in the minds of many Americans to 9/11 and the brutal Khashoggi murder – and where Republicans tend to be more supportive of a strong US-Saudi tie and Democrats suspicious if not hostile. Indeed, with presidential elections on the horizon, it may be counterintuitive but Saudi Arabia could become something of an issue, especially if the pro-Saudi former president emerges as the Republican nominee facing off against an incumbent who personally finds MBS distasteful but seems drawn these days to holding his nose and to improving US-Saudi ties.