Reviews | Saudi Arabia should take a mulligan on the golf course. Here’s what it can do instead.


In 1989, I published a book on the Middle East, “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, and after it came out, my editor, Jonathan Galassi, asked me what my next book would be about. I told him that I wanted to write a book about golf. He looked at me quizzically and asked, “The Persian Gulf? “No I said. “Golf. Golf.”

I say this to establish the fact that I have two passions in life: the Middle East and golf. I was a member of Beirut Golf and Country Club in 1982 – the only course where you were happy to be in a bunker. I caddyed at the 1970 US Open at Hazeltine for Chi Chi Rodriquez. I once caddyed with my friend Neil Oxman for Tom Watson and Andy North in the senior Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament, and although I ran over Andy’s ball during a practice round with our cart, we are still friends.


I know golf and I know the Gulf. I know the PGA, and I know MBS, which is why I’m writing today about the controversy surrounding professional golf: the creation of a breakaway led by Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson and funded by the Kingdom of Arabia Saudi Arabia, which is led by its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, says MBS

The new tour is called the LIV Golf International Series. It’s a classic case of silly “sportswashing” by the Saudis, with the help of a few soulless professional golfers. In my opinion, it’s terrible for golf and even worse for Saudis. It only draws attention to what the Saudis are trying to make people forget – the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – rather than what they want people to embrace – Saudi Arabia as future mecca for sports and entertainment.

If I had the chance to speak directly to MBS, here is what I would say to him:

Mohammed, you only get one chance to make a second impression, and you’re wasting it sleeping with these rebels, some of them some of the least sympathetic members of the PGA Tour. But I’m not going to focus on those 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 stain that will never go away. It was an act of indescribable cruelty for a moderate critic of the regime.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to change the way the world views your country. What you can still do is keep pushing Saudi society, its religious education system, its laws, and its labor markets down the path of reform. It would be an immense contribution to your own country and to the entire Arab-Muslim world.

The truth is, Mohammed, you were responsible for the most sweeping social and religious reforms in Saudi Arabia’s modern history – freeing women to drive, relaxing the male guardianship system that required women obtain permission from men for a variety of work and travel activities. , limiting the role of the religious police, allowing rock concerts and allowing women to attend football matches and young boys and girls to mix normally.

These reforms are long overdue and are still insufficient. But none of your predecessors dared to attempt them, and the changes were hugely popular, especially with young women.

When I visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, a 30-year-old Saudi female social entrepreneur told me about your reforms: “We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before and the after. Her mother, she says, will never know what it’s like to drive a car. Her daughter could never imagine a day when a woman couldn’t drive. “But I will always remember not being able to drive,” she told me.

My friend Dina Amer, an Egyptian-American filmmaker, showed her incredible new film, “You Look Like Me” – about the Islamization and radicalization of a young French-Moroccan woman who died with one of the ringleaders of the terrorist attacks in November 2015 in Paris – at Saudi Arabia Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah in December. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival. But it had its Middle East premiere in Saudi Arabia, although it is a very nuanced and sensitive subject. “I have to say, though, that the quality and ambition of the Saudi film festival was on par with the best in the world,” Dina told me. “Seeing so many Saudi filmmakers start being able to tell their stories was impressive and gave me a lot of hope.” I was struck when Dina pointed out that her film was banned in Egypt but won the Audience Award in Saudi Arabia.

As Steven Cook, Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, and someone who writes about Saudi Arabia while traveling there, noted in a recent essay, “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is maybe heinous”, but “there are important changes in Saudi Arabia”. Arabia that critics often dismiss too easily and casually.

This brings me back to the LIV Golf series. Mohammed, the one who told you that sponsoring a golf tour to break up the PGA Tour – throwing ungodly sums of money at late-career golfers and strangers – should be fired.

It’s not an easy trick to spend a billion dollars improving your image and end up with only bad publicity – but your golf tour did it. Instead of the news pages talking about all the religious and social reforms in Saudi Arabia, the sports pages now talk about the killing of Khashoggi by your regime and the involvement of Saudi jihadists in 9/11.

There’s a reason the most respected players on the tour, like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods, won’t join your streak. They recognize sportswashing when they see it.

So here’s the best golf advice, and Gulf advice, I can give you: there’s only one way to get the world to look at Saudi Arabia in a more balanced way – and that wouldn’t cost you a penny.

Give visas to any journalist or film crew who wants to come to Saudi Arabia. Tell them they are free to go anywhere in the kingdom and interview any Saudi they want. Not all stories will be peaches and cream. You will read complaints about the lack of political participation. The absence of a free press. The brutal arrests of dissidents and various ugly and continuous violations of human rights. It’s all there and all real. But you will also see honest journalists testify to the vast economic, religious and social changes that your government has set in motion.

That’s the most you can hope for. But that would be far better than wasting billions buying off golf professionals who know nothing about your country, who privately say they despise you and your culture, and who have no credibility as witnesses. gains made there. Every time they open their mouths to explain – with obvious embarrassment – why they are taking your stacks of cash, it seriously harms every young Saudi who strives for and benefits from change in the kingdom.

Your worst enemies in Iran could not have devised a more stupid strategy to get the world to give the kingdom a deeper look.

Mohammed, you have to stop this LIV thing. Write it down. The only ambassadors of any value to you are your own young people ready to tell independent journalists that the reforms you have unleashed are profoundly significant for their lives and their region and, although still too small, are essential steps in the right direction. Every day of the LIV tour will be another day of distraction from this reality.