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Saudi golf tournament 'sportswashing' women’s rights abuses, activists warn

Rights groups urge organisers, participants and sponsors to boycott Saudi Ladies International in November
English golfer Meghan MacLaren (pictured) withdrew from the Saudi Ladies International over human rights concerns (AFP/File photo)

A coalition of human rights groups have called for a boycott of a major women’s golf tournament being held in Saudi Arabia over concerns its being used to “sportswash” Riyadh’s record on women’s rights. 

MENA Rights Group, ALQST and Code Pink were among 19 NGOs who wrote a joint letter urging organisers, participants and sponsors of the Saudi Ladies International, due to take place between 12 and 19 November, to reconsider their involvement and denounce human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. 

“Domestic and international viewers from 55 countries worldwide will watch female players compete for a hefty cash prize [$1.5m], while women’s rights defenders in the kingdom languish in prison, without access to legitimate legal redress,” the groups said in the letter, published on Thursday. 

“While we acknowledge that such tournaments represent an important milestone in women’s golf, we are deeply concerned that Saudi Arabia is using this sports event as a public relations tool to sportswash its appalling human rights record, including the discrimination against women and the crackdown on women’s rights defenders.”

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The letter goes on to mention several activists who were jailed in 2018 after peacefully campaigning for the right of Saudi women to drive - a reform which has since been adopted. Among those who are still detained are Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdulaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani. 

Hathloul, who was nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, has reportedly been subject to torture while in custody. Last month, her family said her health had “deteriorated extremely” after she went on a hunger strike. 

Her sister Lina al-Hathloul joined the calls for next month’s golf tournament to be boycotted. In a letter written specifically to the participants, she urged women golfers not to “help that barbaric regime launder its reputation through your excellence”.

“As a leading athlete you have a platform, and with that platform comes responsibility. Your endorsement - implicit or explicit - carries enormous weight. As a woman, you know that women’s rights are human rights, and that the battle for equality is far from won,” she said. 

“In Saudi Arabia, that battle is being lost and my sister and campaigners like her have been tortured for asking for the basic rights that we should all be able to take for granted. Don’t let them make you complicit in their crimes.”

The Saudi Ladies International, the first Ladies European Tour event to be held in the Gulf country, had been due to take place in March, but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The rescheduled tournament will be held at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in the King Abdullah Economic City, 120km north of Jeddah. 

'It is shameful that we have not seen more high-profile athletes refusing to attend events in Saudi Arabia'

- Ines Osman, MENA Rights Group

English golfer Meghan MacLaren withdrew from the original event in March over human rights concerns. 

“I’ve decided not to play based on what I think sport is being used to do in Saudi Arabia,” she told the Telegraph at the time. “Based on the research of organisations like Amnesty International, I couldn’t be comfortable being part of that process.”

Saudi Arabia has played host to several international sporting events over the past 12 months, including wrestling, football, and world heavyweight boxing.

Sports and entertainment events have formed part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy and improve its international reputation. 

“These sporting and entertainment events do not represent progress as long as they are not accompanied by deep and meaningful human rights reforms. As long as that's not the case, they'll remain a tool to whitewash, and ultimately normalise abuses,” Ines Osman, director and co-founder of MENA Rights Group, told Middle East Eye. 

“It is shameful that we have not seen more high-profile athletes refusing to attend events in Saudi Arabia. Many of them probably think they're just there for sport (and money) and not 'politics', but ultimately their visibility gives them a platform that should come with some sense of moral responsibility.”