Soft Power Or Sportwashing? What's Driving The Mega Saudi Image Makeover Play
Saudi Arabia suddenly now leads the world in golf, continues to attract top European soccer stars, and invests in culture and entertainment... Its "soft power" strategy is changing the kingdom's image through what critics bash as blatant "sportwashing."
PARIS — A major announcement this week caused quite a stir in the world of professional golf. It wouldn't belong in the politics section were it not for the role played by Saudi Arabia. The three competing world circuits have announced their merger, putting an end to the "civil war" in the world of pro golf.
The Chairman of the new entity is Yassir Al-Rumayan, head of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. Add to this the fact that one of the major players in the world of golf is Donald Trump – three of the biggest tournaments are held on golf courses he owns – and it's easy to see what's at stake.
In the same week, we learned that two leading French footballers, Karim Benzema and N'Golo Kanté, were to join Saudi club Al-Ittihad, also owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. The amount of the transfer is not known, but it is sure to be substantial. There, they will join other soccer stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo.
So what's going on? Quite simply, Saudi Arabia – particularly its Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman – has decided to invest massively in the sports, entertainment, culture and creative industries. And he has deep pockets.
There are two reasons for this choice. The first is domestic. The Crown Prince has chosen to open the floodgates of a very conservative society, in which two-thirds of the population are under 35. Music festivals with DJ David Guetta, a proliferation of artistic events, the creation of new museums…The Wahhabi kingdom now offers its population entertainment that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
It's the choice of an authoritarian modernization, as the loosening of the societal straitjacket is not accompanied by any questioning of the feudal political system: zero tolerance of any dissent remains the norm. It's a bit like the Saudi version of the Chinese model: a permissive social contractact, as long as it doesn't transgress the political red line.
CEO of Saudi Golf Federation and Golf Saudi, Majed Al Sorour, talks with Donald Trump at the former President's Golf Club
Changing the kingdom's image
The second reason is international: MBS, as the crown prince is known, is playing the "soft power" card; gentle influence, to burnish his image still scarred by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Global balances are being called into question
For some time now, Saudi Arabia has been making more headlines for its investments in sport and entertainment than for its human rights violations – that's the point! It is also making headlines for its growing, and increasingly autonomous, role in regional and global diplomacy.
This is the hallmark of a period when global balances are being called into question: countries such as Saudi Arabia are breaking free from bloc alliances. It was in Beijing that Riyadh renewed its ties with Iran, and the Iranian embassy reopened its doors this week. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is currently visiting the kingdom walking on eggshells, no longer on conquered territory.
The Crown Prince's all-out strategy has the advantage of changing the kingdom's image. But it is also a balancing act, both in terms of its internal transformation and its international role. Changing everything so that nothing changes has not always worked out so well.
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