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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."

Footballer Karim Benzema, in his Real Madrid kit

Karim Benzema during a football match at Santiago Bernabeu stadium on June 04, 2023, in Madrid, Spain.

Pierre Haski


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.

Authoritarian modernization

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.

A crowd of people in golf clothes, including Majed Al Sorour and Donald Trump

CEO of Saudi Golf Federation and Golf Saudi, Majed Al Sorour, talks with Donald Trump at the former President's Golf Club

Al Diaz / ZUMA

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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Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age

Women in Italy are living longer than ever. But severe economic and social inequality and loneliness mean that they urgently need a new model for community living – one that replaces the "one person, one house, one caregiver" narrative we have grown accustomed to.

Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age

Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones.

Barbara Leda Kenny

ROMENina Ercolani is the oldest person in Italy. She is 112 years old. According to newspaper interviews, she enjoys eating sweets and yogurt. Mrs. Nina is not alone: over the past three years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of centenarians in Italy. With over 20,000 people who've surpassed the age of 100, Italy is in fact the country with the highest number of centenarians in Europe.

Life expectancy at the national level is already high. Experts say it can be even higher for those who cultivate their own gardens, live away from major sources of pollution, and preferably in small towns near the sea. Years of sunsets and tomatoes with a view of the sea – it used to be a romantic fantasy but is now becoming increasingly plausible.

Centenarians occupy the forefront of a transformation taking place in a country where living a long life means being among the oldest of the old. Italy is the second oldest country in the world, and it ranks first in the number of people over eighty. In simple terms, this means that Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones: those over 65 make up almost one in four, while children (under 14) account for just over one in 10. The elderly population will continue to grow in the coming years, as the baby boomer generation, born between 1961 and 1976, is the country's largest age group.

But there is one important data set to consider when discussing our demographics: in general, women make up a slight majority of the population, but from the age of sixty onwards, the gap progressively widens. Every single Italian over 110 years old is a woman.

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