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Saudi Arabia relishes a triumph that transcends sports

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                                Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19.


    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates >> When a Saudi-backed upstart golf league began recruiting high-profile players from the top U.S. circuit, the American tour’s commissioner lamented a “foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf.”

The commissioner, Jay Monahan, who heads the PGA Tour, sniped at players who left for the new league, LIV Golf, hinting at the stain that the Saudi government’s human rights violations would leave on them. But on Tuesday, Monahan sat smiling with the head of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund to announce that the PGA Tour and LIV Golf were forming what promises to be a lucrative partnership.

“I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite,” Monahan said later. “But circumstances do change.”

The deal, if it goes forward, represents an enormous victory for Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the country’s bid to become a major player in global sports, giving the kingdom considerable sway over the game of golf. But the significance of the moment transcends sports, as Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed seeks greater political influence in the Middle East and beyond.

Over the past weeks, Saudi Arabia has seen a flurry of diplomatic activity and some successes, including the opening of an embassy of its longtime regional rival, Iran, as the two countries move toward restoring normal relations.

And the golf deal is only the capstone of a busy week in which Crown Prince Mohammed is also hosting the visiting U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who arrived Tuesday night.

Blinken represents another once-vocal critic of the kingdom, President Joe Biden. On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and other human rights violations.

“I’m not going to lie. This is a moment that a lot of us are relishing,” Prince Talal Al Faisal, a Saudi businessperson and royal family member, said in an interview. Like many Saudis, the prince said that he felt the stream of negative news coverage about his country was often unfair or inaccurate.

“It gets to a point where you think to yourself, OK, this is hopeless,” he said. “And a moment like this makes you think, ‘Hang on, well, if you try hard enough, you eventually get your way.’”

Five years ago, this moment would have seemed virtually impossible.

In 2018, Saudi agents murdered and dismembered Khashoggi, a Saudi exile who had fled to the United States, in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The international condemnation was sharp, and for a brief time, it seemed like Crown Prince Mohammed was facing isolation on the world stage.

A U.S. intelligence assessment determined that the crown prince had likely ordered the killing, a charge he has repeatedly denied.

The murder was the peak of a broader crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia that continues today. But the icy mood did not last long.

Crown Prince Mohammed had cultivated warm relations with former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and weeks after the killing, the president released a statement defending the prince. It said, “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder.”

Trump argued in the same statement that protecting the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia was essential for securing the kingdom’s cooperation on oil price, military spending and other investments in the United States.

Within months, American and European CEOs who had canceled their appearances at conferences in the kingdom quietly returned. Crown Prince Mohammed told visitors that he was determined to forge ahead with his plan to diversify the conservative Islamic kingdom’s economy and open it up socially.

Foreign leaders began returning for visits. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which oversees about $650 billion in assets, continued to roll out high-profile investments around the world, such as LIV Golf.

As Prince Talal notes, “We are, like it or not, central to a lot of the things that happen across the globe.”

Saudi Arabia’s attempts to enter the world of golf had included an earlier approach to the PGA Tour about starting a partnership. But that approach was rebuffed, and it was only after the introduction of the rival LIV Golf last year — which provoked a bruising legal battle and eventually a series of secret meetings between PGA Tour leaders and Saudi officials — that Monahan and his lieutenants came around.

Saudis have grown accustomed to seeing their former critics reversing course.

In 2018, after Khashoggi’s murder, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Crown Prince Mohammed “toxic” and a “wrecking ball,” vowing that he would never visit Saudi Arabia “as long as this guy is in charge.” Yet in April, Graham traveled to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and was photographed grinning with Crown Prince Mohammed.

“Things in Saudi Arabia are changing very quickly for the better,” he told ABC after his visit. “His vision for the country economically is transformative.”

In the span of five years, Crown Prince Mohammed has made serious strides toward diversifying the oil-dependent economy, investing in mining, tourism and entertainment. Under him, the country ended a ban on women driving, significantly loosened gender segregation and even promoted electronic music raves in the desert, ripping apart ideas about what was possible in the kingdom.

“Keeping up with Saudi Arabia is not only tough for non-Saudis but for Saudis themselves,” said Bader Al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Kuwait University. “This shock-and-awe approach hopes to deliver faster results than those delivered in previous waves in Saudi history,” he added.

During Blinken’s visit to the kingdom this week, he will attend a gathering of a global coalition to counter the terrorist group Islamic State. For Crown Prince Mohammed, this summit represents another chance to demonstrate his leadership.

He has been keen to hedge against Saudi Arabia’s past dependence on the United States, its main security guarantor.

“The relationship now looks more like the way the U.S. relates to some European partners,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Security cooperation is key and maintained by both sides, but the Saudis are flexing their muscles in an effort to become a regional and international actor of significance in a world in which power is diffused, and the U.S. picks its battles much more cautiously.”

Just days before Blinken’s arrival Tuesday, Crown Prince Mohammed welcomed the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, for a visit. Next week, the Saudi Ministry of Investment will host a major gathering of Arab and Chinese businesspeople.

And, at least for a few days, the kingdom can continue to bask in the glow of its golf victory.

The head of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, will also head the board of the new golf entity, though the PGA Tour will hold a majority of the board seats. The wealth fund has the exclusive right to invest in the new company going forward, opening the door for it to increase its stake in the years ahead.

The deal protects al-Rumayyan, a golf aficionado, from the prospect of being deposed and scrutinized in U.S. courtrooms, a risk that had loomed over him during the legal battles that the PGA Tour and LIV golf fought before their deal.

The sovereign wealth fund has also managed to achieve quick results for its investment in the English soccer club Newcastle United, which qualified for the UEFA Champions League just 18 months after it was purchased.

Critics have accused Saudi Arabia of using its spending power in sports to distract from its poor human rights record, allegations that Saudi officials have rejected.

During his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed on Tuesday, Blinken “emphasized that our bilateral relationship is strengthened by progress on human rights,” said Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson.

But for Saudis whose family members remain in prison, targeted in the crackdown, such words offer little comfort.

Abdullah al-Qahtani, a dual Saudi American citizen, has not heard from his father, Mohammed al-Qahtani, since October, when he disappeared shortly before he was scheduled to be released from a Saudi prison. He had been serving a 10-year prison sentence in relation to starting a human rights organization.

“It’s getting to the point where all the doors are shutting in our faces,” the younger al-Qahtani said Tuesday during a virtual news conference. “What I want is to bring his issue to light, because they have to know. I know Secretary Blinken is going to be in Saudi. He has to bring up my dad’s situation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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