As Saudi Arabia continues to open up internationally, it is yet again in hot water over its human rights record. The current controversy revolves around the kingdom’s increasing presence in the sporting world and accusations of “sportswashing”.
In recent years, the Saudis have thrown the heavy weight of their Public Investment Fund into partnerships with Western institutions like the PGA, Formula One racing and World Wrestling Entertainment.
While the precise dollar figure of all of these efforts is difficult to determine, it has easily reached into the billions.
The lack of any meaningful reparations following the peace deal also raises the question whether the deal was simply a way for the Saudis to disengage from the war at a time when a serious rebranding campaign was needed.
At home, political freedoms and rights remain tightly constrained by the regime. Despite moves to relax some restrictions on women and religious minorities, these reforms have paradoxically come with increasingly harsh measures towards peaceful dissidents.
Only last year, female activists Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani received prison terms of 34 years and 45 years, respectively, for their engagement with social media posts criticising the regime.
More recently, several Howeitat tribesmen were sentenced to death on terrorism charges for peacefully protesting a megacity project that threatened their ancestral village.
Building a new Saudi brand
But while obfuscating human rights issues is certainly part of the equation when it comes to the kingdom’s sports mania, its motivations are far more strategic than simple bait-and-switch tactics.
At their core, these actions fit within a broader effort outlined in the Saudi Vision 2030 campaign to rebrand the country and normalise it within the wider liberal international order.
For many outside observers, the kingdom has long been an outlier on the international stage. It’s been characterised as a primitive backwater cut off from the outside world and ruled over by a despotic monarchy that has relied on a combination of oil wealth and Islamic extremism to maintain its hold on power.
Such reductive depictions ignored a far more complex, rich and colourful history. However, few in the West were keen to explore this more nuanced viewpoint (at least if my book sales are anything to go by).
Saudi royals have historically been content with such stereotypes, too, provided they maintained their sovereignty and security at home. The kingdom made little effort with soft power initiatives outside the Islamic world.
This all changed in 2015, however, with the ascension of King Salman and his chosen heir, Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The younger bin Salman quickly assumed de facto control over many of the country’s key portfolios.
In contrast to his conservative predecessors, the prince was seen as a “disruptor” with little regard for tradition. Like with many of the Silicon Valley tech-bros he emulates, bin Salman likes to move fast and break things. This includes everything from traditional religious institutions to architectural rules.
Bin Salman’s vision is to remake the Saudi brand as a modern authoritarian technocracy in the mould of the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. He wants to emulate these successful case studies through economic reform, military modernisation, technological innovation, cultural modernisation and the opening of the kingdom to cosmopolitan cultural engagement and exchanges.
A new platform to engage with the world
These efforts took a hit, however, after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Bin Salman denied being personally involved in the murder, counter to what US intelligence reports concluded. But some believed the global anger of Khashoggi’s killing could have damaged the prince’s reputation badly enough to hamper his future as a statesman.
Memories can be remarkably short-lived, though. And five years on from the killing, bin Salman’s rebranding agenda is charging ahead with increased urgency. This is where the Saudi sporting onslaught comes in, and why it needs to be understood.
Control and influence over these sports provide the kingdom with enormous cachet. Saudi Arabia can use this new stature to engage in cultural outreach with the world, influence global opinion and portray itself as modern and dynamic.
To characterise all of this as mere sportswashing may be catchy, but reduces a much broader and strategic effort.
Indeed, implicit in the notion of sportswashing is that the Saudis are suddenly concerned about the country’s association with human rights violations.
But looking at the examples of Qatar and the UAE, authoritarian regimes are able to flout international norms and laws on human rights and still fit quite comfortably within the wider liberal international order. The reason: the countries serve a valuable function in sustaining that same system.
While human rights abuses will undoubtedly continue to plague the Saudis’ efforts, bin Salman is betting big they won’t stand in the way of other states and companies engaging with an increasingly open and cosmopolitan kingdom. If history is anything to go by, he may just be right.