Photograph: Diriyah Cup, Saudi Arabia, 2019.
Having made global headlines for the better part of the last two years, the LIV Golf league – bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) – held its inaugural event in London last week amid a tidal wave of criticism and reports have recently emerged that the Saudis have their eyes on tennis next.
As reported by the London Telegraph, Saudi Arabia is seeking to enter the tennis world by bringing a WTA tour event to the Kingdom.
Unlike their foray into golf, the Saudis are not (yet) seeking to create a rebel league to rival the ATP or the WTA tour. Rather, they want to become a regular part of the tennis calendar.
So what does this mean and is it good news or bad news?
That’ll depend entirely on the motives of the PIF.
It is universally acknowledged that the LIV Golf series is an attempt at “sports washing” by the Saudi Arabian government.
The reason is that the chair of the PIF – the largest public investment fund in the world with an estimated $857 billion in assets – is none other than Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (better known as ‘MBS’), the crown prince and deputy prime minister of Saudi Arabia.
The seventh son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, MBS controls his father’s government and runs an authoritarian regime.
Infamously, the United Nations found MBS to be personally responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian nationalist who was critical of MBS’ regime. Khalshoggi was ordered into a Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. He arrived at the consulate in one piece but it is believed he left in several.
Among other atrocities, MBS was also behind a bombing campaign in Yemen in 2015.
Such barbarism has meant that foreign investment in Saudi Arabia is limited outside of its oil exports. Consequently, MBS has founded the ‘Saudi Vision 2030’ program which aims to diversify the country’s economy.
Enter, golf. Should the LIV Golf series explode in popularity as intended with its high-profile recruits including Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson; the Saudi Arabian brand will, they hope, soon become associated with elite sport and entertainment rather than fatal human rights abuses.
The aim of the game is not to recoup the outrageous sums of money spent on the LIV Golf series. It is to legitimise the Saudi Arabian government for future foreign investment.
Speaking to the Telegraph, a spokesperson for the WTA said “[w]e have received inquiries from Saudi Arabia as to interest in bringing a WTA event to the region. As a global organisation, we are always interested and appreciative of inquiries received from anywhere in the world and we look seriously at each opportunity [but] we have not entered into formal negotiations.”
The ATP on the other hand has rejected the advances of the PIF for the better part of the last five years. While possibly a moral stance, in truth the ATP is simply more financially stable than the WTA.
The WTA lost a significant source of its funds after withdrawing from China following the ongoing Peng Shuai scandal. However, the ATP has taken no such stance.
Now, given the PIF doesn’t yet plan on rivalling the WTA or ATP, rather they desire the spectacle of professional tennis, the question for the WTA becomes, is all Saudi Arabian money “bad money”?
Speaking on the issue facing professional golf, Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, a staunch opponent of the LIV Golf series on both moral and professional grounds, said “if it keeps going the way it’s going it’s going to fracture the game more than it already is”
“If people want to spend money in the game, not regardless of where that money comes from, but if the Saudis are hell-bent on spending money in golf let’s try to get it spent in a way that benefits the wider ecosystem, that’s what I would like to see.
“Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.”
And that’s the conundrum for the WTA. If the game needs the money and it’s going to a good end – promoting and expanding the sport while simultaneously aiding its balance sheet – do you take it regardless of its source?
There is an inherent difference between taking “bad” or “dirty” money for a good purpose as opposed to being under its direct employ, like someone such as Greg Norman.
It’s early days and the WTA is sure to consider the optics as well as the moral and economic consequences of whichever decision they elect to make. Undoubtedly a significant part of its decision-making process will surround the motives of the PIF and any notion of potential sports washing.
After all, the WTA CEO Steve Simon has demonstrated he’s not afraid to make brave decisions in spite of financial need – as demonstrated by his stance on the Chinese government of the day.
But every business needs its money and both the ATP and WTA continue to hold events in the UAE – a federation known for its questionable record on human rights – and, until recently, had no problem hosting events in Russia.
Counteracting any concern over the source of any Saudi Arabian-based cash inflow is also the need to grow the game. There’s an argument that the source of the funds ought not to deny the people of Saudi Arabia the opportunity to witness the wonder of professional tennis and the opportunity to grow the game domestically that such an event would provide.
Whatever happens from here, the WTA will surely be watching any developments in the golfing world with keen interest.