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Saudi Arabia’s Golf Gambit

Having made inroads in soccer and Formula 1 racing, Saudi Arabia is now making an ambitious play for the world of golf.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Phil Mickelson at the LIV Golf Invitational
Phil Mickelson at the LIV Golf Invitational
Phil Mickelson of the United States plays in the LIV Golf Invitational in Albans, England, on June 9. Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at Saudi Arabia’s latest sporting investment, a rare U.S.-China defense meeting, and more news worth following from around the world.

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Can Riyadh Use Sports to Repair Its Reputation?

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at Saudi Arabia’s latest sporting investment, a rare U.S.-China defense meeting, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Can Riyadh Use Sports to Repair Its Reputation?

Try as it might to ignore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia is still facing tough questions—from the media and its allies—over the 2018 killing.

The latest public relations scramble involves a new Saudi-backed golf competition, LIV Golf, whose world-class talents have had to become diplomats overnight and explain away why they are taking Riyadh’s money.

Speaking on Tuesday ahead of the tour’s launch, golfer Graeme McDowell called the killing of Khashoggi “reprehensible,” an improvement on one of his colleagues, who had tried to brush off the murder as a case of “We’ve all made mistakes.”

In contrast to its other high-profile investments (such as the Newcastle United Premier League soccer team and a Riyadh stop on the Formula 1 racing circuit) Saudi Arabia’s presence is more in the background of this project, although it will host one tournament of out of the eight planned on the new tour.

With five U.S. venues chosen, two of them belong to former U.S. President Donald Trump. The tour’s final, and most lucrative, tournament takes place on Trump’s Doral course in Miami.

If the project is considered a long-term moneymaker rather than the more familiar sportswashing, the revenue streams aren’t immediately apparent: The tour has yet to secure major sponsorships or broadcasting deals.

Rather than go for explicit Saudi branding, the LIV tour is looking to supplant the structure of the professional sport itself, grounded as it is in the English-speaking world, and offer a rival package.

“It’s definitely part of a broader shift towards a non-Western dominance in sport,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert in Gulf state politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Foreign Policy, citing this year’s soccer World Cup in Qatar, the globalization of Formula 1 racing, and India’s move to conquer professional cricket.

Indian organizers tried something similar to Saudi Arabia—to great success—with cricket in 2007, introducing the Indian Premier League with shortened matches in a lively, more television-friendly format to the traditional product. Today, the league reaches over 250 million viewers per week (more than double the Super Bowl’s viewership).

Saudi backers have provided vast sums of money to entice players to participate. Phil Mickelson, the tour’s marquee name, was reportedly given $200 million to join. Tiger Woods was reportedly offered nearly $1 billion. He declined.

The PGA tour, the old guard to LIV’s upstart, has responded by suspending all participating players from their organization. It’s a somewhat toothless move, given that the four events that draw the most fans—the majors—are not governed by the PGA. (One of those majors, the PGA Championship, is run by a separate organization, the PGA of America—causing an acronym traffic jam familiar to our Washington readers).

For Saudi investors, like the golf-loving Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the expectation is that any controversy will eventually fade away, as it has with the purchase of Newcastle United.

“They may be thinking that there’s going to be an initial backlash but people will move on, and again, change the subject. Instead of talking about Khashoggi, talking about golf,” Coates Ulrichsen said.

Saudi Arabia’s apparent reputational resilience isn’t just down to short attention spans; its vast oil reserves at a time of high oil prices also helps it set the terms of the conversation.

Just ask U.S. President Joe Biden, who is reportedly set to end his cold-shoulder policy toward Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in person this month as the U.S. leader tries to persuade the Gulf energy giant to pump more oil to help control prices.

That cold reality is why, FP columnist Steven A. Cook writes, Biden’s promise of making the crown prince a “pariah” was always doomed to be campaign bluster.


What We’re Following Today

Austin’s Shangri-La summit. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin holds his first in-person meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe today in Singapore on the margins of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. As FP’s Jack Detsch reports, the U.S. side is hoping to improve crisis communications with Chinese officials as part of the meeting.

Ukraine’s fight. Ukraine is losing between 100 and 200 soldiers per day in its fight with Russian forces in the east of the country, Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhaylo Podolyak told the BBC on Thursday as he urged Western nations to commit more heavy artillery and rocket-launching systems to counter the Russian assault. Podolyak’s casualty figure admission is a rare insight into the Ukrainian military’s progress, something U.S. intelligence officials have been largely in the dark on.

Podolyak added that his side would only consider peace talks if Russia ceded territory it had gained since the invasion.


Keep an Eye On

France parliamentary elections. French voters return to the polls on Sunday for the first time since April’s presidential contest to begin voting for a new parliament for President Emmanuel Macron’s second term.

Traditionally, such elections go the way of the president’s party, but a close contest is predicted heading into the Sunday first-round vote, with a left-wing coalition led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon hoping to cause an upset for Macron’s centrist bloc. Polls currently show Macron’s party winning the most seats but falling short of an absolute majority. The second round takes place on June 19.

North Korea-China relations. China has not ruled out sanctioning North Korea in the event of a new nuclear test, its U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said on Thursday, one day after he joined with his Russian counterpart to veto a Security Council resolution targeting North Korea for its recent ballistic missile tests.

Zhang also said that talks between the United States and North Korea should remain on the table. “The United States is the No. 1 superpower in the world. If the United States wants to engage in dialogue with anyone in the world, it’s not a difficult thing,” Zhang said. “It’s up to DPRK to make their decision, but definitely our willingness is there.”


Odds and Ends

New Zealand will begin taxing sheep and cow burps as part of new measures designed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the country. The moves are intended to cut down on the production of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that in New Zealand is mainly released from cow and sheep exhalations as well as their manure and flatulence.

New Zealand officials are hoping to persuade farmers to pursue greener methods by incentivizing animal feed additives and encouraging more forestry on agricultural land.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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