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Saudi golf deal prompts accusations of hypocrisy and betrayal

PGA Tour boss and other key golf figures blasted as they switch from criticising Saudi sportswashing to embracing new Riyadh-backed entity
Yasir al-Rumayyan, chairman of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, at the LIV Golf Invitational Series event at The Centurion Club in St Albans, near London, 8 June 2022 (AFP)

A year is a long time in golf.

In a lawsuit last September, the PGA Tour, the sport's leading event organiser, accused Saudi Arabia of injecting “astronomical sums of money” into a rival tour in order to “sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities”. 

It was referring to the $255m LIV Golf series, financed by Riyadh's Public Investment Fund (PIF), which hosted several events in 2022 and lured away some of golf's biggest stars with highly lucrative deals.

The American tour filed legal action against LIV, accusing it of interfering with players’ contracts.

Its commissioner, Jay Monahan, even invoked the plight of families who lost relatives on 9/11, who have long accused Saudi officials of complicity in the terror attacks.  

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“I think you’d have to be living under a rock to not know there are significant implications and as it relates to the families of 9/11,” he said of the Saudi-funded rival organiser.

“I would ask any player that has left or any player that would ever consider leaving - have you ever had to apologise for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

'It is truly unbelievable, it shows there are no limits to what money can buy'

Hatice Cengiz, Jamal Khashoggi's fiancee

The feud ran so deep that the US organiser vetoed sponsorship from Raytheon Technologies because the defence giant sells missiles to Saudi Arabia. 

Fast-forward a year, and now the PGA - still led by Monahan - and LIV Golf have merged, with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) as its key financial backer.

The PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf announced what was referred to as a "glamorous deal" by former US President Donald Trump on Tuesday to form a single commercial entity to unify golf.

The Saudis “will initially be the exclusive investor in the new entity”, the shock announcement confirmed, and will have the right of first refusal to make future equity investments.  

Accusations of hypocrisy

The surprise development has been met with a chorus of criticism and accusations of hypocrisy, including from the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the families of 9/11 victims. 

“It is truly unbelievable, it shows there are no limits to what money can buy,” Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, told Middle East Eye. 

Khashoggi, a former Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was murdered by Saudi agents at the country’s Istanbul consulate in 2018. 

“It seems our cherished principles of justice are for sale. No one has stood up for what they know in their hearts is right,” Cengiz said. “This must be stopped so that we do not lose our humanity for the sake of sport and profits. It is the worst face of sportswashing."

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson appeared to confirm last year that he'd signed a $200m deal with LIV (AFP)

Golf was upturned last year after a number of its biggest names, including three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, decided to sign with the Saudi-backed LIV.

Just months before joining the tour, it emerged that the American golfer had told his unofficial biographer Alan Shipnuck that the Saudis were "scary motherfuckers" with a “horrible record on human rights", and that he thought a Saudi-sponsored event would be nothing more than sportswashing.

Speaking at a press conference at LIV's inaugural event on the outskirts of London, Mickelson appeared to confirm that he was being paid $200m to play in the series, telling MEE at the time that "contract agreements should be private - that doesn't seem to be the case".

The tournament at the Centurion Club near St Albans was heralded by some spectators as a somewhat refreshing arrival to the buttoned-up world of golf, with hyperbole-heavy commentary, motorised drinks carts and a Friday night performance from UK garage pop star Craig David contributing to an atmosphere that felt more like that of a mainstream festival. 

But of the almost 250 spectators MEE spoke to, not one had paid to be there, with the organisers deluging local golf clubs and Facebook pages with free tickets.

At the time, it seemed inconceivable that the upstart, Saudi-sponsored league would merge with the traditional tour it was looking to usurp. But in a statement on Tuesday, Monahan said: "After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love." 

Yasir al-Rumayyan, chairman of PIF - which owns 93 percent of LIV Golf - will become the head of the new joint entity. 

The PIF is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the vast majority of its board members are sitting ministers in the Saudi government.

The wealth fund will be the new tour’s exclusive investor, with the right of refusal over any capital to be invested - despite PGA Tour officials spending over a year criticising LIV’s Saudi funding. 

'Circumstances change'

“I recognise everything that I’ve said in the past and my prior positions,” Monahan told reporters on Tuesday. “I recognise that people are going to call me a hypocrite.

“Anytime I said anything, I said it with the information that I had at that moment, and I said it based on someone that’s trying to compete for the PGA Tour and our players,” he added. “I accept those criticisms, but circumstances do change."

Rory McIlroy, a former world number one golfer, was one of the key figures who declined to join the Saudi-sponsored tour. He told Sky Sports that he felt "mixed emotions" following news of the creation of the new entity. "At the end of the day money talks, and you'd rather have them as a partner," the Northern Irishman said.

James Lynch, director of UK-based rights group FairSquare, questioned the motivations of the PGA Tour in its prior references to Saudi human rights abuses.

“These previous statements about the importance of human rights and the rights of victims of terrorism… were talking points that ultimately were factored into a negotiation,” Lynch told MEE. “Golf was always up for sale.” 

Falah Sayed, human rights officer at MENA Rights Group, told MEE that the merger showed "there is absolutely no hesitation to cast human rights aside for profit". 

9/11 families speak out

Families of victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks hit out at Monahan, accusing him of betrayal.

“Monahan co-opted the 9/11 community last year in the PGA's unequivocal agreement that the Saudi LIV project was nothing more than sportswashing of Saudi Arabia's reputation,” said Terry Strada, chair of the 9/11 Families United, in a statement.

Strada accused PGA Tour of becoming "paid Saudi shills" who were taking billions of dollars "to cleanse the Saudi reputation". 

Several players other than McIlroy, who was reportedly offered $500m, turned down huge sums of money offered by LIV Golf. Tiger Woods reportedly rejected an offer of around $800m.

PGA Tour vs LIV: How Saudi Arabian money ignited a golf war
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Many have since expressed their disappointment at the deal. Australian golfer Geoff Ogilvy said that many of his fellow golfers branded Monahan a "hypocrite" during a players' meeting on Tuesday. 

"I feel betrayed, and will not not be able to trust anyone within the corporate structure of the PGA Tour for a very long time," tweeted golfer Wesley Brian. 

Lynch believes that investment in golf gives Saudi Arabia a unique incentive.

"What golf offers you from the perspective of the Saudi state, which football doesn't, is a sport that is associated with and is watched by elites worldwide," Lynch said. "It carries with it a kind of brand identity of respectability."

He added that it would help normalise Riyadh's reputation as somewhere it's "completely normal to go and do business" despite "horrendous human rights abuses". 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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