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Saudi Arabia: Pro Golf Merger “Sportswashes” Abuses

Government’s Investment Fund Merges with PGA Tour, DP World Tour

Golfers walk on the 16th hole during the LIV Golf Invitational at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2022.  © 2022 Chris Trotman/LIV Golf via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) have effectively enabled the Saudi government’s efforts to “sportswash” its egregious human rights record through the announced merger of its LIV Golf and the PGA, Human Rights Watch said today. The merger will place the Saudi government in an unprecedented position of influence and control at the top levels of professional golf.

On June 6, 2023, the PGA Tour announced an agreement combining PIF’s golf-related commercial businesses and rights, including LIV Golf, with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour into “a new, collectively owned, for-profit entity.” According to the announcement, the “PIF will initially be the exclusive investor in the new entity.” Saudi’s PIF will also have “the exclusive right to further invest in the new entity.” The PGA previously accused LIV Golf of seeking “to sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities,” in a United States court case. The parties “agreed to end all pending litigation between the participating parties” as part of their merger.

“Saudi Arabia’s state fund will apparently largely control professional golf while also sportswashing the country’s dismal human rights record,” said Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The surprise announcement reveals the PGA Tour’s hypocrisy – human rights clearly took a back seat to the merger’s financial benefits.”

After the announcement, US Senator Chris Murphy tweeted “So weird, PGA officials were in my office just months ago talking about how the Saudis’ human rights record should disqualify them from having a stake in a major American sport… I guess maybe their concerns weren’t really about human rights?”

The parties and the new business have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout all its operations. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets out these responsibilities, including the expectation that businesses will adopt specific policies and conduct due diligence to identify any risks of contributing to human rights harm. Such harm may include conferring reputational benefits that help cover up human rights abuses. That standard has clearly been breached by the merger, Human Rights Watch said.

In a statement, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said, “I applaud PIF Governor Yasir al-Rumayyan for his vision and collaborative and forward-thinking approach.” Under the agreement, al-Rumayyan will reportedly serve as the board chairman of the merged golf leagues.

The PIF is a Saudi government-controlled sovereign wealth fund with approximately US$620 billion in assets under management. It has been directly implicated in human rights abuses through its acquisitions and personnel and has helped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rehabilitate his international image and whitewash serious ongoing abuses committed by Saudi authorities under his leadership. At least three members of the current board were involved in the abusive “corruption crackdown” in Saudi Arabia in 2017.

In March 2022, Human Rights Watch wrote to al-Rumayyan requesting his response to allegations of serious human rights violations associated with the fund. He has not responded.

Human Rights Watch reported extensively on the November 2017 corruption crackdown, which included detaining dozens of prominent businessmen, royal family members, and current and former officials. Outside of any recognizable legal process, the authorities pressured them to hand over assets in exchange for their release. Some of them remain in detention without charge.

As part of the crackdown, one of Mohammed bin Salman’s advisers ordered al-Rumayyan, then the fund’s “supervisor,” to transfer 20 companies into the PIF, according to internal Saudi government documents submitted to a Canadian court as part of an ongoing legal claim filed by a group of Saudi companies against a former intelligence official.

One of the companies was Sky Prime Aviation, which owned the two planes later used by Saudi agents to travel to Istanbul, murder the prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate, and return to Saudi Arabia. In February 2021, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report assessing that Mohammed bin Salman had approved the operation.

A June 2019 UN report by its then-special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings disclosed that the planes were indeed owned by Sky Prime Aviation, based on flight records from the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation.

Under the agreement, al-Rummayan will not only be board chairman, but will serve on its executive committee, and will join the PGA Tour’s policy committee. The Saudi fund will be the exclusive investor in the new entity, with exclusive rights to invest in the new entity, and a right of first refusal to invest in the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and LIV Golf.

The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator. The investment in major entertainment, cultural, and sports events is tied to Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a plan to overhaul the country’s economy and attract foreign investors and tourists. Among the programs it has developed to realize its vision is one focused on creating more leisure and recreational options to “enhance the image of the Kingdom internationally.”

“The question for players and sponsors in this new league is whether they want to be associated with the abuses of its most influential shareholder, or will they look the other way if the prize money and profile is enough,” Shea said.

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