Jan 30th, 2019
Has the European Tour shot itself in the Footjoys?
Controversy raging over Saudi International
Words: Tim Southwell
It takes a lot for Tiger Woods to turn down a massive appearance fee (reportedly north of $3m) and a free yacht, but that's what happened recently when the European Tour came knocking with an invite to the Saudi International, the country's first significant golf tournament.
Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick also declined the offer of plying their trade in the controversy-hit country. The same can be said for Roger Federer who was offered absurd riches in return for playing an exhibition match. The much criticised match between Djokovic and Nadal, scheduled for December 2018, was called off due to an apparent knee injury to Nadal, though both players were visibly beleagured by the heat they were receiving from Amnesty International.
The touble with making money from your sport in a country like Saudi Arabia is, well, they've got previous for not going about their business in such a way as to make us westerners feel 100% at ease. Saudi's male guardianship system is most often referred to as the root of all things evil in Saudi Arabia, a system in which women must get the permission of a male relative to do things such as apply for a passport, travel abroad, or get married.
It is only in the last 12 months that women have been allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and only very recently have they been permitted to watch football matches in stadiums. Women activists have reportedly long been tortured for challenging the status quo, with electrocution and flogging being the most regularly used forms of 'corrective oppression'.
The international heat has been on Saudi to 'get with the program' for some time now and a more liberal approach has been adopted, resulting in the afore mentioned new priveleges for women. But then the 59-year-old Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a high profile critic of Mohammed Bin Salman's reign, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up some documents and was never seen again.
We now know he was brutally murdered while inside the consulate. The CIA believe that Mohammed Bin Salman ordered the execution and the US have warned of 'consequences' if it is found the Saudi leader was behind the murder. Add to this the ongoing brutality being waged by the Saudis in Yemen and you've potentially got quite a conundrum on your hands.
So that's the back drop, these are some of the reasons that humanitarian organisations like Amnesty have condemned the European Tour for doing a deal with the Saudis to have a high profile event at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.
While some tour players like Casey and Fitzpatrick cited humanitarian reasons for turning their backs on the event, it hasn't stopped the world's top players from signing up. In fact, four of the world's top five players are teeing it up in Saudi: Justin Rose; Brooks Koepka; Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. It's been widely reported that all are on big money invites.
It's about as close as the European Tour gets to one of their tournaments having the feel of a major. As a golf spectacle it's going to be fantastic. The course is immaculate and you have to think it will be Birdie Central from tape to tape.
But should they be there at all? Well, as far as The European Tour is concerned, they already have a massive investment in middle east golf to maintain and expand – this is the sixth tournament on their schedule to be held there. So if any of the tours was going to bring Saudi Arabia into the fold it was likely to be Keith Pelley and co. Saudi Arabia is planning massive investment in golf over the coming years and the European Tour wants to be part of the action.
It was, however, interesting that the European Tour's season opening press release did not mention the Saudi International. In a 1,032 word celebration of what is to come, the press release gave shout outs to everything from the Golf Sixes to the Trophy Hassan. But at no point was there any mention whatsoever of the Saudi International, despite the fact that the tournament has by far the year's best field in attendance.
The relatively modest Kenyan Open (€1.1m prize fund) was greeted with PR fanfare but the Saudi International ($3.5m) was not mentioned at all. When the deal was struck, Keith Pelley was in jubilant mood.
“We are very excited to be talking the first steps toward bringing professional golf to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time and I must thank His Royal Majesty, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for his vision in making this happen,” Pelley said.
So what happened to cause the tour to attempt to sweep the event under the PR carpet? If you're going to do the deal and hold the tournament, at least front it up. The controversy isn't going to go away because you haven't made a song and dance about it in your press release.
At the end of the day, the European Tour's responsibility is to its players. They are tasked with getting the very best for them in terms of paycheck and facilities. So, if the tour is satisfied that the players and the tour itself are going to be safe, then their job is done.
We might not be comfortable that our tour is directly beneffiting from a state that has clear and present humanitarian issues, but it's difficult to see why the European Tour should directly be making a stand when the British Government and hundreds of European companies seem happy enough doing business with the Saudis. In fact, Britain is the second biggest exporter of weapons to Saudia Arabia after the USA.
If it's OK for our elected officials to overlook moral issues in pursuit of profit then it is hardly appropriate for the European Tour to be the organisation to stick their flag of protest in the ground. Unfortunately for Jamal Khashoggi and the women of Saudi Arabia, this is just business.
And the players themselves? Well, I'm afraid you're not going to get much change out of them. They go where the dollar goes and, provided they have assurances that their own safety is guaranteed, they don't tend to think about much else. There are obviously exceptions, Casey being one who actually went out of his way to say why he wasn't going to be playing, but most, like Dustin Johnson, are content to simply tow the company line.
Johnson said he talked to his corporate sponsors to make sure they didn't have a problem with him playing.
"Obviously, that was a concern with our team," Johnson said. "I'm going over there to play a sport I'm paid to play. It's my job to play golf. Unfortunately, it's in a part of the world where most people don't agree with what happened, and I definitely don't support anything like that. I'm going to play golf, not support them. I'm not a politician. I play golf."
World Number 1 Justin Rose clearly doesn't see his new found position at golf's summit as reason to get all worldy-wise on us: "I'm not a politician, I'm a pro golfer," was his deadpan response when asked about the morality issue.
Eddie Pepperell, one of the game's biggest thinkers, at least gave some credibility to his attendance: "It clearly is true that Saudi Arabia's human rights record is questionable at best, and appalling to anyone in the West," Pepperell, 28, said in his blog. "But should that mean we boycott competing?
"That probably depends who you are. I can really only speak for myself, and plus, remember I'm not being paid to be here. The problem with taking a moral approach to us playing in Saudi Arabia this week is that it would lay bare many contradictions of the past. Like, for example, why do we play in China? Or Qatar? Or Turkey?
"Depending on your time scale, you could argue that every country on earth has at some point exemplified the worst that human beings have to offer."
There's no doubting Pepperell's accuracy in drawing on other countries' questionable practicises, and if you really get down to it you could put up a strong argument about refusing to play pretty much anywhere and that includes the USA and UK. Western countries may have infinitely superior records when it comes to humanitarian issues in our own countries, but can we hand on heart say we haven't transgressed on foreign territories in the past?
And the World Cup in Russia? The lead up to that event could hardly have posed more questions as to the morality of UK teams' participation with the worldwide fall out and condemnation due to the Salisbury poisonings. In the end the football teams and the fans went, everyone had a great time and the event was deemed a huge success. So that's allright then.
As much as I feel conflicted about the European Tour going to Saudi Arabia and as uncomfortable a feeling as it is that inevitably it's all about the money, it's not up to The European Tour to define the perameters of our moral compass.
You can pick your individual battles where you want and that's up to you, that's what opinions and democracy are all about, I guess. If you can stomach it, go for it, you'll be there for a week and then you'll be gone. Just don't say that it's not your responsibilty to have an opinion.
Next up, The North Korean Classic...
And Another Thing!