Saudi Arabia Continues Sports-Washing Campaign As World Looks Away

Saudi Arabia is an extremely important country in the international community. Due to the incredible amount of oil present in the region, it is one of the wealthiest and most influential states in the world. However, in the last few years, the country has started to diversify its economy, given that an oil-based one won’t last forever. Since 2021, the country has seen its Public Investment Fund (PIF) invest heavily in a number of major sports industries; investing in a new golf league, purchasing Newcastle United Football Club, four clubs in the Saudi Football League, and spending over £700 million on some of the biggest names in football to play for its teams. Whilst the official statement from the country is that this is an attempt at diversifying its economy, many suspect that it is also an attempt to move the publicity of the country away from its extremely poor human rights record.

This attempt at a shift in publicity, known as “sports-washing”, is in the hope that when someone thinks of Saudi Arabia, they think of fun things like sport and Cristiano Ronaldo, instead of state sanctioned executions, poor attitudes towards women and the LGBT+ community, and assassinations on foreign soil. This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has attempted a sports-washing strategy. It began heavily investing in sports in 2018. This initial attempt didn’t have the greatest success, as many sports personalities and brands refused to engage with Saudi Arabia on ethical grounds. Despite there being no tangible improvement to these moral issues, since the purchase of Newcastle in 2021, the idea of accepting Saudi money has become normalised, with the PIF investing over £5 billion into different sports including football, golf, and boxing.

Amnesty International and other organisations focusing on human rights abuses have been very vocal about the normalisation of this sports-washing campaign in Saudi Arabia. However, beyond these few organisations, critics have so far been few. Unfortunately, national governments do relatively little to block such investments, unless they pose a threat to national security. As of now, the human rights abuses that Saudi Arabia commit are either in Saudi Arabia, or in a state that does not have a desirable enough sports market for it to want to invest there. As long as this is the case, there is enough distance for a state to ignore investment from the PIF.

However, while it may be difficult, it is not impossible for governments to take action against this investment. It would be relatively straight forward for them to publicly call it out, and take concrete steps to combat it. But unfortunately, nothing has been done so far. It is possible that many are hesitant to turn away such large sums of money from their sports leagues, and therefore their economy. For these same sates over recent years, Saudi Arabia has become such an important player in the international community that they cannot afford to do something that may block trade with the country. It would also be possible, and much easier, for the sports leagues themselves to block Saudi investment. Not only, however, have they not done this, but many organisations like the National Basketball Association in America have welcomed it and recently changed their rules allowing investment from sovereign wealth funds like the PIF. The problem with the response to this investment from Saudi Arabia is that there simply hasn’t been one. Beyond complaints from organisations like Amnesty International and fleeting outcries in social media, little has been spoken about it on the news, and state governments have not called it out.

It is extremely dangerous for other nations to sit back and allow groups such as the PIF to invest so heavily in sport, which, as a result, makes Saudi Arabia look great on the world stage. It is true that the sports industry doesn’t have the best track record for accepting investment from individuals or organisations with unimpeachable records. Many sports investors are businesses or private citizens who made their money in the gambling or fossil fuels industries. Yet this is different. The PIF are the world’s fifth largest sovereign wealth fund and are backed by a nation state, with a spending ability that completely outweighs the competition.

These sports leagues and institutions, which have the power to shape global culture, cannot see this investment from the PIF as ‘just money’, because it comes with so baggage. There are those who see Saudi Arabia’s views on women and the LGBTQ+ community as mere ‘cultural differences’ which we should respect. However, this does not justify the death sentence as a suitable ‘punishment’ for being homosexual in the country; or justify the fact that in 2019 the state only partially got rid of the system that requires women to have a registered male guardian. These views alone should be enough to question the morality of their investment in global sports, but when you also take into account the human rights law violations including, but not limited to, mass executions, assassinations on foreign soil, torture, unfair trials, and forced evictions, the idea that any global institution should accept the PIF’s investment is outrageous.

In order to confront the PIF’s attempt at sports-washing, there must be a unified and global condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s investment in sport. Ideally, before being able to invest in areas that are not only huge money earners, but also have the power to influence millions and shape global culture,  potential investors must be able to prove that they are responsible enough. Unfortunately for them, Saudi Arabia has proven not to be responsible enough, and those who accept the money coming from the PIF are also tacitly condoning the way Saudi Arabia runs its country. If a sovereign wealth fund like the PIF wants to invest money into a sports institution then it is vital to inspect its previous track record. Given it has the power to monopolise the sports business and normalise the actions of a rogue state in the process, a closer look must be taken at how to stop this blatant case of sports-washing.