Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he will keep sportswashing

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Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud attends Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event on the day of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, September 9, 2023. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embraced accusations of “sportswashing” to rehabilitate the country’s image, as the kingdom beefs up its spending and influence in the major international sports of golf and soccer.

“Well, if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, I will continue doing sportswashing,” he said during an interview with Fox News that aired Wednesday night.

“I don’t care … I’m aiming for another one and a half percent. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that one and a half percent,” the crown prince said.

Critics have long said that Saudi Arabia’s government is using sports investments to gain political influence around the world, as well as to mend the kingdom’s tarnished reputation from human rights abuses like the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The practice has been dubbed sportswashing.

The kingdom has ramped up investments in sports in recent years, taking stakes in Saudi soccer clubs and recruiting top players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar from Europe to Saudi Arabia with deals reportedly as high as $175 million. It also lured pro golfers like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau away from the PGA Tour to its rival LIV Golf with massive paydays — before the organizations ultimately agreed to merge.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), an entity controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed, has backed Saudi soccer clubs and LIV Golf. PIF has a range of investments in areas from electronic vehicles to entertainment. The fund is worth over $700 billion, up from $528 billion in 2021, Reuters reported earlier Thursday.

The LIV Golf merger with the PGA Tour has faced widespread scrutiny. Critics say the deal, announced in June, is in part an attempt to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image.

The deal could also pose a threat to national security, lawmakers have said. U.S. officials have found that Saudi Arabia has ties to the 9/11 attacks, though the Saudi government has denied involvement. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was born in the country.

Key U.S. lawmakers have criticized the pending golf merger as an attempt by the kingdom to distract from its human rights record.

Saudi Arabia is “a regime that has killed journalists, jailed and tortured dissidents, fostered the war in Yemen, and supported other terrorist activities, including 9/11. It’s called sportswashing,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said during a panel hearing in July examining the deal.

PGA Tour officials Jimmy Dunne and Ron Price said during that hearing that the golf organization faced an existential threat from LIV before the proposed merger. Prior to the deal, LIV Golf sued the PGA Tour for alleged anticompetitive practices, which prompted the PGA Tour to countersue, saying LIV Golf was stifling competition.

“We are in a situation where we faced a real threat … you could go elsewhere for $1 billion, $3 billion, maybe $50 billion,” Price said at the time. “We could do it, but if we went down that path, we would end up giving up total control.”

Earlier this month, the Senate subcommittee held a second hearing on the LIV Golf and PGA Tour merger, where one witness said the agreement was not about business.

“At its core, then, this is not a business deal,” said Benjamin Freeman, director of the Democratizing Foreign Policy Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “This is an influence operation. It’s meant to shape U.S. public opinion and U.S. foreign policy.”

— CNBC’s Lillian Rizzo and Chelsey Cox contributed to this report

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