In 1989, I published a book on the Middle East, From Beirut to Jerusalem, and after it came out editor Jonathan Glassy asked me what my next book would be. I told him I wanted to write a book about golf. He looked at me questioningly and asked, “Persian Gulf?” No, I said. “Golf. Golf.”
I say this to prove the fact that I have two passions in life: the Middle East and golf. I was a member of the Beirut Golf and Country Club in 1982 – the only course you’d be happy to be in a basement. She competed in the 1970 US Open in Hazeltine for Chi Chi Rodriquez. I once carried my friend Neil Oxman for Tom Watson and Andy North at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Championship, and although I drove over Andy’s ball on a practice run with our buggy, we’re still friends.
I know golf and I know the Gulf. I know the PGA, I know Mohammed bin Salman, which is why today I am writing about the controversy surrounding professional golf: the creation of a breakaway tour led by Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson and funded by Saudi Arabia, and led by its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS
The new round is called LIV Golf International Series. It’s a classic case of stupid “sport washing” by the Saudis, with the help of some soulless professional golfers. From my point of view, it’s awful for golf, even worse for the Saudis. It only calls attention to what the Saudis are trying to forget – the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – and not what they want people to embrace – Saudi Arabia as the future Mecca of sports and entertainment.
If I had the opportunity to speak directly to MBS, here’s what I would say to him:
Mehmet, you only have one chance to make a second impression, and you squander it by going to bed with these rebels, some of whom are among the lesser-known members of the PGA Tour. But I won’t focus on the golfers today. I want to focus on Saudi Arabia.
Your government’s responsibility for the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote for the Washington Post, is a permanent disgrace that will never go away. It was an unspeakably tough act for one of the regime’s moderate critics.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to change the way the world sees your country. What you can still do is continue to push Saudi society, its religious education system, its laws, and its labor markets down the paths of reform. That would be a great contribution to your country and to the entire Arab-Muslim world.
Truth is, Muhammad, you have been responsible for the most radical social and religious reforms in the modern history of Saudi Arabia – emancipating women to drive, facilitating a male guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission from men to undertake a variety of work and travel activities. Reducing the role of the religious police, permitting rock concerts and allowing women to attend soccer matches and mingle naturally between young boys and girls.
These fixes are long overdue and still not enough. But none of your ancestors dared to try it, and the changes were immensely popular, especially among young women.
When I visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, a 30-year-old Saudi social entrepreneur told me of your reforms that stuck in my ear: “We are fortunate to be the generation that has seen the before and after.” She said her mother would never know what it was like to drive a car. Her daughter would never be able to imagine a day when a woman could not drive. “But I will always remember that I couldn’t drive,” she told me.
My friend Dina Amer, the Egyptian-American director, screened her stunning new film You Look Like Me – about the Islamization and radicalization of a young Moroccan-French woman who died with a ringleader of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris – at the Saudi Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah in December. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival. But it was first shown in the Middle East in Saudi Arabia, despite being a very delicate and sensitive subject. “I must say, though, that the quality and ambition of the Saudi Film Festival were on par with the best in the world,” Dina told me. “Seeing so many Saudi filmmakers starting to tell their stories was impressive and left me a lot of hope.” I was shocked when Dina noticed that her film was banned in Egypt but it won the audience award in Saudi Arabia.
As Stephen Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, and someone who writes about Saudi Arabia actually going there, noted in a recent article, “The Saudi crown prince may be abhorrent,” but “there are important changes in Saudi Arabia that critics reject.” Often very easily and refreshedly.”
This brings me back to the LIV Golf Series. Muhammed, whoever told you that sponsoring a round of golf to break up the PGA Tour — by throwing mostly sinister sums of golfers at the end of their careers and total unknowns — should be fired.
It’s not easy to spend a billion dollars to improve your image and end up with bad publicity – but your round of golf did. Instead of news pages talking about all the religious and social reforms in Saudi Arabia, sports pages now talking about your regime’s killing of Khashoggi and the involvement of Saudi jihadists on 9/11.
There’s a reason your most respected Tour players, like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods, don’t join your series. They know sports washing when they see it.
So here’s the best golf tip, and Gulf tip, I can give you: There’s only one way to get the world to look at Saudi Arabia in a more balanced way – and it won’t cost you a penny.
Grant visas to any journalist or camera crew who wants to come to Saudi Arabia. Tell them that they are free to go anywhere in the kingdom and interview any Saudi they want. Not every story will be peach and cream. You will read complaints about lack of political participation. Absence of a free press. Brutal arrests of dissidents and various ugly and continuous violations of human rights. Everything is there and everything is real. But you will also see honest journalists bearing witness to the massive economic, religious, and social changes initiated by your government.
It’s the most you could wish for. But it would be much better than wasting billions buying golf professionals who know nothing of your country, who privately say they despise you and your culture and are not credible as witnesses to the gains made there. Every time they open their mouths to explain – with obvious embarrassment – why they are taking your piles of cash, it does grave harm to every young Saudi who seeks and benefits from change in the kingdom.
Your worst enemy in Iran could not have designed a stupid strategy to make the world give a deeper look to the kingdom.
Mehmet, you need to close this LIV thing. crossed out. The only ambassadors of value to you are your youth who are willing to tell freelance journalists that the reforms you have introduced have profound meaning for their lives and their region and, while still very small, are vital steps in the right direction. Every day the life of the LIV Tour will be another day of distraction from this reality.