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'Nobody's perfect:' How Saudi Arabia is trying to rehabilitate itself

The merger with the PGA Tour is the latest move by the controversial kingdom that is once again among polite international society

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News that the PGA Tour intends to merge with its well-funded Saudi competitor LIV Golf has caused outrage, in part because PGA leadership has been steadfast for so long against partnering with a dictatorship. Top athletes like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had refused huge payments and stood by the PGA on principles such as human rights and democracy. But Saudi oil money buys its way through a lot of principles, and the deal appears to be done.

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The National Post explains what’s going on in the world of professional golf — and why Saudi Arabia’s involved.

What is pro golf’s case against Saudi Arabia?

Where to begin? Saudi Arabia is a despotic Islamic fundamentalist petrostate under an absolute monarchy. Religious freedom does not exist. Diversity in sexual orientation is not acknowledged. Women are excluded from jobs in the professional sectors, both by law and in practice, though this is being changed under the ostensibly reformist agenda of Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, the crown prince, prime minister, and de facto ruler under his aged father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. For the past five years, Saudi women have even been allowed to drive cars, and have taken to it enthusiastically.

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Systemic repression, including false imprisonment and torture, is common. Human rights are not recognized, and Saudi Arabia has not signed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. There are no national elections. Freedom House, a U.S. non-profit that studies civil and political liberties, ranks Saudi Arabia at 1/40 for political rights and 7/60 for civil liberties, and says the “regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.”

Raif Badawi, for example, whose wife Ensaf Haidar is a Saudi-Canadian activist on his behalf, is well known in Canada for having been flogged, tortured and imprisoned for a decade after creating a blog called Free Saudi Liberals, alleged to be anti-Islamic. He was released last year but remains in the country under a travel ban.

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Flogging and executions are among the behaviours that MBS has lately tried to minimize as Saudi Arabia strives for a new closeness with the West.

How’s that going?

Pretty well actually. Not so well that Saudi Arabia has joined the Abraham Accords that aim to restore Arab relations with Israel in cooperation with the United States, but well enough that it seems plausible. It is at least an active goal of U.S. diplomacy, such that America’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with MBS this week.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has also just this week re-established diplomacy with the Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship in Iran, which takes a similar approach to civil society.

Canada, in step with the U.S. approach, just sent Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly to meet with top Saudi government officials, including a top advisor to MBS and the minister of state for foreign affairs and climate envoy to discuss what he called “the ambitious economic (and) social transformation that the Kingdom is undergoing.”

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In a rare tweet last month, former prime minister Stephen Harper said: “I am pleased to see Canada and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia restore full diplomatic relations. The Kingdom is a longtime regional partner, one with whom we share many interests. Congratulations to Jean-Philippe Linteau on his appointment as Ambassador.”

All this comes after years of Saudi Arabia waging a catastrophic proxy war in Yemen, supported partly by the U.S. through logistics, intelligence, and arms sales, which complicates any talk of boycott or moral superiority.

So a merger with an American sporting institution would be in line with Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts at expansive diplomacy, notwithstanding its moral shortcomings. It’s true that football’s greatest global star Lionel Messi just turned down an offer to play in Saudi Arabia, and is going to Miami instead.

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But MBS’s Saudi Arabia is in polite global company again, especially in sports.

So all is forgiven in the golf world?

Not at all. If anything, this has been an exercise in determined forgetfulness. The most poignant example is the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. An atrocity wherever it might have happened, it was doubly sinister for taking place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, to which he was lured. American officials believe the murder was committed on MBS’s personal orders, as other extrajudicial killings have been.

There is also the matter of 9/11, which was a plot by a terrorist group sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan but led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and conducted by a group of 19 men, 15 of whom were Saudi. That has long been exhibit number one in the case against Saudi Arabia as an exporter and supporter of terrorism, which was a major concern of American security policy through the 2000s until as recently as the campaign against the Islamic State. Under MBS, there have been indications of an effort to move away from extremism toward a self-described moderation.

So the prospect of the LIV-PGA merger has people twisting themselves into pretzels to dismiss these horrors, or to say bygones are bygones, such early LIV player Bryson DeChambeau, who in an interview on CNN struck the tone of a wellness influencer to say that “Nobody’s perfect. But we’re all trying to improve in life.”

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