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Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah, May 12, 2021.  © 2021 Hasan Bratic/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.

(Beirut) – The global governing bodies of men’s and women’s professional tennis have effectively enabled the Saudi government’s efforts to “sportswash” its egregious human rights record through the announcement of two separate deals with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the Saudi Tennis Federation, Human Rights Watch said today. Neither of the public announcements of the deals mentioned any measures to address human rights.

On April 4, 2024, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced that its next three finals, from 2024 to 2026, will be hosted in Riyadh following an agreement with the Saudi Tennis Federation. On February 28, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the PIF announced a “multi-year strategic partnership.”

“Global tennis organizations should not contribute to serving up repression in Saudi Arabia,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “The Women’s Tennis Association and the Association of Tennis Professionals should demand improvements to Saudi’s rights record before making deals that launder Saudi government abuses.”

The agreement between the WTA and the Saudi Tennis Federation “will offer record prize money of US$15.25 million at the WTA Finals in 2024 with further increases in 2025 and 2026.” The Saudi PIF became the official naming partner of the ATP Rankings through the strategic partnership.

The tennis federations should press the Saudi government to release jailed rights activists and urge reforms to allow women and girls to exercise their basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said. These sports federations should also adopt a human rights policy that ensures that they do not enable or facilitate Saudi government abuses. They should also reject any nondisparagement or other clauses in their agreements with the Saudi PIF that restrict the associations, their staff, or athletes from publicly criticizing Saudi authorities’ human rights abuses.

Other sports federations, including Formula 1, have added restrictions to athletes speaking out on issues, including about human rights in their agreements with the Saudis. Formula 1’s ban on political statements came after champion racing driver Lewis Hamilton criticized Saudi Arabia’s rights record.

On April 4, Human Rights Watch wrote to the WTA, asking what, if any, human rights due diligence and stakeholder consultations the federation had carried out with Saudi women’s rights defenders and other key stakeholders before the decision to award the finals to Saudi Arabia. The federation has not yet responded.

WTA tour chairman and CEO Steve Simon told a media outlet on April 4 that, “We’ve … shared the concerns around women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights within the Kingdom of Saudi [Arabia]. Our focus is on how we develop women’s tennis for the benefit of everybody involved in the game … We participate in many countries that have different cultures and values systems across the board.”

Businesses, including sports federations, have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout all their 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. Harms may include conferring reputational benefits that help cover up human rights abuses. That standard has clearly been breached by these agreements, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi Arabia has an egregious women’s rights record. Saudi women’s rights activists have faced arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and travel bans. Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist, remains subject to a travel ban after she was detained for more than 1,000 days for her women’s rights activism.

Since 2018, Saudi women have been allowed to drive, and women and girls have been allowed to play sports and watch sports in stadiums. However, Saudi women and girls still face significant barriers preventing or limiting their participation in sports and physical activity.

A 2023 study by researchers at King Saud University found uneven access for Saudi female participation in sports and physical activities: Saudi women and girls in rural areas encountered higher constraints than residents of urban areas. The study found that a lack of physical education classes and sports facilities, in public and private girls’ schools, also negatively affects the ability of Saudi girls to participate in sports and physical activities.

The country’s first codified law on personal status formally enshrines male guardianship over women, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi government officials touting the law as “comprehensive” and “progressive.” The law codifies discriminatory practices and includes provisions that facilitate domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage. The law also uses vague language that gives judges wide discretion when adjudicating cases, increasing the likelihood of inconsistent interpretations.

On March 27, a Saudi court sentenced 12 football fans to prison terms ranging from six months to up to a year for peacefully chanting during a January football match.

The PIF is a Saudi government-controlled sovereign wealth fund with approximately US$750 billion in assets under management. Under the crown prince, the fund has facilitated and benefitted from human rights abuses directly linked to him, including the 2017 “anti-corruption” crackdown that involved arbitrary detentions, abusive treatment, and the extortion of property from former and current government officials, prominent businessmen, and rivals within the royal family, as well as the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

As part of the crackdown, one of bin Salman’s advisers ordered the PIF’s then-supervisor Yasir al-Rumayyan to transfer 20 companies into the fund, 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.

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

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 the crown prince’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 WTA still has leverage to press the Saudi government to release jailed women’s rights activists and to urge permanent reforms to allow women and girls to have basic human rights,” Worden said. “The question for sponsors and others who may be involved in tennis is whether they want to be associated with the abuses of its most influential backer, or will they speak out.”

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