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Sports as Diplomacy: The Case of Saudi Arabia

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Opinion Piece

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2016, the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader of the country Mohammed bin Salman announced an ambitious development program, branded as ‘Saudi Vision 2030’. The initiative was understood by commentators to be an attempt to alleviate Saudi Arabia’s over-reliance on oil exports, and to diversify its economy by bolstering tourism and the entertainment sector. But since 2021, another means of semi-official international diplomacy has come to the forefront of the conversation: sports. With the opening of the Saudi transfer window at the beginning of July, the last six weeks has seen a slew of prominent footballers completing transfers to Saudi clubs. On the back of Cristiano Ronaldo’s confirmed move to Saudi club Al-Nassr last winter, seasoned players such as Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino, and Jordan Henderson all announced transfers to Saudi clubs. Why then, does any of this matter for international politics?

Sports and politics have long been intertwined disciplines. One can look to sporting boycotts on apartheid-era South Africa, the ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy undertaken by the United States and China in the 1970s, or the more recent exclusion of Russian and Belarussian athletes from tournaments to illustrate this point. But conversations about sporting diplomacy in the Middle East have elicited a specific allegation which it is worth discussing - that of ‘sportswashing’. The term is generally understood to mean the ways in which a country invests and participates in sports in order to improve its image, or distract from its abuses.

The conversation around sportswashing has become more prominent in recent years, garnering a particular influx of attention last year owing to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. The extensive work needed to create the infrastructure for the event drew attention to blatant human rights abuses in the process, such as the kafala system, which was criticised for facilitating the exploitation of migrant labour and being tantamount to modern slavery. In the case of Saudi Arabia, critics argued that the eye-watering cumulative sums the state has spent on sports investments in just the last two years - reported at $6bn by the Guardian - was evidence of a heavy-handed attempt to distract from, or conceal, its own deficiencies in human and democratic rights. The transparency of such an approach was illustrated when Saudi club Al-Ettifaq recoloured Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson’s Pride armband in black and white in their promotional material.

But the conversation is more complicated than this, and the term is often unhelpful in capturing these complexities. On the one hand, an argument made by some is that branding it as such is merely gatekeeping, and prevents the wider participation in, and consumption of, sports from extending beyond Europe and the Americas. While this is a rather weak defence, it is also likely that the levelling of such allegations is inconsistent. The news that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the PIF, had bought out an 80% share in Newcastle United made headlines in the UK; consider meanwhile German club FC Schalke, whose primary sponsor up until 2022 had been Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company.

Critically, discussing state investment in sports abroad primarily with reference to sportswashing neglects a more bleak, and also serious, interpretation - that being that image cultivation is not its primary purpose. Indeed, one could argue that the assumption that these campaigns are motivated by a wish to curry favour with the West is somewhat parochial. After all, why should the UK assume that its perception of Saudi Arabia is so important to the latter that this must be the primary impetus? The grim political reality is that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia have had, and continue to possess, a blank cheque as long as they continue to feed the West’s appetite for oil. Indeed, the number of abuses that Riyadh has carried out, with ultimately no long-term substantive response from the West, is because other than condemnation, few options are available as long as diplomatic ties remain. Subsequently, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the brutal Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, and the repeated detention and torture of political opponents, particularly Saudi women, go unaccounted for. It should also be remembered that there is a sizable domestic audience for sport in Saudi Arabia among a mostly young population - the latest census data estimated that under-30s represented 63% of the total. Absent any democratic or political rights in the country, sporting events also serve to satisfy this demographic.

Moreover, this question of sports should prompt us to re-examine our perceptions of different means of diplomacy, as it is one that is primarily being conducted between populations rather than between governments. While inter-state relations are likely to be determined by larger critical issues, the fostering of goodwill specifically among sports fans with such investments is one side of the issue where the critique of sportswashing may be more accurately applied. Consider, for example, the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has remained a critical regional partner for the U.S on counterterrorism, and more fully integrated itself into the US’s regional order with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 that normalised relations with Israel. This is an autocratic monarchy that does not need to engender a positive image for itself, but has nonetheless benefited hugely from its foray into sports. From golf to football to Formula 1, these are increasingly the primary associations made about the country by foreign visitors, and this brings significant financial returns - a slick public relations campaign and intelligent investing that perhaps the Saudis hope to emulate.

All this is to say that while such ventures may not weigh as heavily on state-to-state interactions, they are nonetheless important if we consider public perceptions to be a part of the process of shaping international relations. And this is not to dispel the important debate around what limitations should be placed on foreign ownership of national assets, especially when such assets are directly managed by these foreign states. Despite assurances that the PIF remains separate from the state, the Crown Prince remains the chair of the fund. Qatari ownership of PSG is structured in a similar fashion, with the Qatar Sports Investment Group (QSI) acting as a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), that nation’s sovereign wealth fund. What the Saudi issue tells us is that if international relations is a poker game, we are operating under assumptions that limit our view of who the players are, what the poker chips are, what the rules are, and who is watching.


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