When Loujain al-Hathloul filmed herself driving from the United Arab Emirates to the Saudi Arabian border in 2014, she already knew, as a women’s rights activist, that it would come at the cost of her freedom. What she might not have expected was that her name would become the sticking point of a particularly uncomfortable golf press conference over six years later.
If the real tragedy of life is men who are afraid of the light, it was Paul Casey who was left in its glare as the European Tour made its own lucrative ‘desert swing’ from Dubai to King Abdullah Economic City this week. In an interview with The Independent in 2019, the popular British golfer and Unicef ambassador said he would be a “hypocrite” to participate at a tournament in Saudi Arabia and declined to play in the inaugural event. In a sport where political silence is bliss, it was a bold statement, if only it had lasted the sands of time.
Two years later, Casey is one of the flagship names at the Saudi International, which features the likes of world No 1 Dustin Johnson, US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and England’s unanimously loved Tommy Fleetwood. None, though, have drawn so much ire as Casey, who was repeatedly asked about Al-Hathloul’s recent sentencing of five years and eight months in prison for “various activities prohibited by the anti-terrorism law”.
“…There’s no question that is not aligned with my beliefs,” Casey eventually admitted, after four rounds of awkward rope-a-doping. For the world’s best players, there is only one prevailing reason to be in attendance this week, and it is not the so-called awakening of Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination in the depths of a pandemic. But then, money triumphing over morality is hardly a revelation. Casey is highly regarded by most, works closely with several charities, and even referred to a Unicef report on Yemen in our interview. His U-turn is painful because he cared to acknowledge what existed. But then if he is to be the scapegoat, the notion of sportswashing - the laundering of a country’s human rights record through the washing machine of golf - has already won.
Because while Casey made himself a target, he did at least provide more of a defence than those who never spoke at all; the players who hid behind banal cliches of sport and politics somehow existing in separate worlds. “Anybody who says sport isn’t political, that’s rubbish,” Casey previously said. And no high-ranking professional golfer can reasonably claim to be oblivious to that, in a sport where social issues have historically been surrendered for the sake of profit. Silence, after all, is the greatest enabler.
Nobody is guiltier that golf’s governing powers. After the insurrection of the US Capitol, the sport sought to wipe itself of Donald Trump’s fingerprints. Yet, in 2019, Keith Pelley, the European tour’s chief executive, said he had “no second thoughts” about bringing an event to Saudi Arabia for the first time, months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. There are ranking points on offer, a lucrative prize pot available, and for those lower competitors who spend each week scrapping to keep their careers afloat, it is to their detriment to pass up the opportunity to play this week. The European Tour shouldn’t put them in such a position.
The retort, of course, is where do you draw the line? Last month, the PGA Tour made its annual stop in China at a course built on land allegedly stolen from villagers. Forty years ago, the first unofficial ‘Million Dollar Championship’ was being played in South Africa during the apartheid. The sport has its own history of infatuation with maligned regimes that it has struggled to clean, too, despite recent campaigns around diversity and equal opportunity.
Meanwhile, the likes of Fifa, Formula One, tennis and boxing have all flocked open-handed to Saudi Arabia. There is little incentive for the likes of the European Tour to stop. But they could at least drop the pretence of being blind to the ramifications. The players are just pawns in a far bigger scheme and, this week, the sport is little more than a vehicle being taken for a ride. If that doesn’t feel like a crime, ask Loujain al-Hathloul, who’s sitting behind bars just so other women could get behind the wheel.
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