Saudi leader trying to avoid ‘pariah’ status with LIV-PGA merger, says rights group | LIV Golf Series

The proposed merger between the Saudi-backed LIV Tour and the American PGA Tour marks the latest maneuver by Riyadh in its campaign to repair its reputation and head off the sort of blacklisting that occurred after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent advocate for democracy in the Middle East told the Guardian.

“This is a merger in name only. This is really about the Saudi government throwing a premium at PGA Tour that they obviously found too overwhelmingly tempting to resist,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn).

“This is an important way to prevent what happened in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, when US investors pulled out over a billion dollars from the Saudi stock market and cut their business deals with Saudi Arabia, returned Saudi investments in their companies, refused to do business in Saudi Arabia, refused even to travel to Saudi Arabia, to talk about business or anything else.”

The international backlash that followed Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents in its consulate in Istanbul was “a major humiliation for Mohammed bin Salman”, the crown prince who US intelligence agencies say ordered the killing, Whitson said.

“The notion that the international community and international businesses would sanction him is something that the Saudi government wants to see never happen again,” she said. Stakes in and ownership of American businesses and institutions make “it very difficult and costly to try ever again to pivot from Saudi Arabia”, Whitson added.

The proposed tie-up between the PGA and LIV, which is financed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), would end a series of lawsuits between the leagues that had become fierce rivals since the latter’s founding in 2021. It would also mark the latest foray that Saudi Arabia – flush with cash thanks to higher oil prices and its position as a linchpin in the global crude market – has made into everything from sports to video games to defense.

Using its estimated $650bn in assets, the government-controlled PIF now owns Newcastle United, and Saudi Arabia is said to aspire to host the World Cup in 2030. The country has also clinched a 10-year deal to host a Formula One Grand Prix each season, and attracted current world footballer of the year Karim Benzema and superstar Cristiano Ronaldo to its country’s domestic leagues.

Last year, the Washington Post reported that dozens of former US military officers, including 15 generals and admirals, have worked as paid consultants for the Saudi defense ministry since 2016, attracted by salaries that run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Saudi Arabia is now poised to take over American golf, and if the deal between LIV, the PGA and the DP World Tour is approved, Whitson said, “it will really become a test for a number of golf players who don’t want to work for Saudi Arabia. I mean, this means that Tiger Woods and everyone else is literally working for a murderer, and that’s going to be a difficult ethical and moral question for every player and every fan who’s paying money to attend these golf games.”

The deal faces not-insignificant opposition in Washington: the justice department has told the PGA Tour the merger could face a review over antitrust concerns, and this week, the chair of an investigative Senate subcommittee demanded that the PIF’s governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, appear at a hearing. That raises the prospect he could be questioned under oath not just about the golf deal, but also about Khashoggi’s killing.

“I think there’s a good chance to stop this from happening,” said Whitson, noting that in addition to the justice department review, the PGA’s board members will have to vote to approve the merger. She also expects a US government investigation into the agreement’s national security implications.

“We still don’t know the full contours of the deal, we still don’t know how much the Saudi government is paying, we still don’t know what the ownership structure is going to look like. We don’t even know the full ownership structure of LIV Golf,” she said.

Conceived by Khashoggi before his death, Dawn, the democracy organization, was officially launched on the second anniversary of his murder in 2020, with Whitson, who had known the murdered journalist for years, as its leader. Together with Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, Dawn filed a federal civil suit that alleged the Saudi crown prince and other officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation” when the journalist was kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and killed during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents necessary to marry Cengiz.

That suit ended after Riyadh elevated Prince Mohammed to the level of prime minister, and the Biden administration told a court the promotion means he should be granted sovereign immunity. It was a decision that effectively killed Dawn’s lawsuit, Whitson said, adding that though Dawn is pursuing a similar complaint with a prosecutor in France, it has seen no progress there yet.

The US president has had a rocky relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country he vowed to turn into a “pariah” on the world stage during his campaign for the White House, before backtracking last year with a visit to Riyadh, where he greeted the crown prince with a fist bump but later told reporters he had expressed his objections to Khashoggi’s murder in a meeting.

Whitson says Riyadh has too much to offer the US for it to become a pariah anytime soon. Not only does it play a commanding role in influencing the global oil markets, and therefore the politically volatile price of gasoline paid by American drivers, it’s also a major buyer of American weapons. Meanwhile, Biden is reportedly trying to encourage Riyadh to normalize relations with Israel, in what Whitson described as a quest for a foreign policy victory he can use in his campaign for re-election next year.

Whitson likened Riyadh’s aspirations to those of China and Russia – all authoritarian states she said are watching the LIV-PGA merger closely.

“President Biden and the US government, in their national security strategy, have identified the struggle against authoritarianism as an existential battle for the United States and the west – that we must win against China and Russia, or else authoritarianism and tyranny will win the world,” Whitson said.

“What this acquisition of PGA Tour represents is kind of a proof of concept by Mohammed bin Salman, by President Xi, by President Putin, that democracy has no value because it’s for sale to the highest bidder, including a tyrant like Mohammed bin Salman.”