Mohammed bin Salman has already given sportwashing verdict amid Newcastle and LIV Golf progress
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Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has already delivered a firm stance on the sportswashing accusations that have been aimed at the Gulf state in recent years. The Saudis took a major step into football just over two years ago when a consortium led by the state's Public Investment Fund became owners of Newcastle United after a lengthy and controversial takeover process.
Over the two years that preceded the completion of the £330m deal, Saudi Arabia's human rights record, broadcasting piracy and strong discussions over a nation state owning a Premier League club were all brought to light as the bid to take over at St James' Park became a prolonged process.
Saudi Arabia will also host the 2034 FIFA Men's World Cup, following in the footsteps of neighbours Qatar, who were controversially awarded last year's tournament. A significant investment has also seen some of the biggest names in football joining PIF-backed clubs in the Saudi Pro League over the last 12 months. Further steps into sport have come with the formation of the LIV Golf Tour, which has now attracted several of the world's top players and caused a major split across the world of golf as several stars left the PGA Tour to join their PIF-backed competitor.
Two-time major championship winner Jon Rahm became the latest player to sign up to the LIV Tour this week as the Spaniard described the switch as 'a great opportunity' and swept aside suggestions he would be impacted by 'negative things' in the media and via social media outlets.
Sportswashing, a term used to describe nations and states using sport to improve their reputation in the wake of any wrongdoing, is an accusation that continues to be levelled at Bin Salman and Saudi Arabia and that talk will continue over the coming years as the state prepares to host the World Cup.
But the man regularly referred to as MBS has already given what will be perceived as a controversial take on sportswashing, suggesting he will continue that process if it increases Saudi Arabia's vast wealth.
Speaking to Fox News in September, he said: “If sportwashing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sportwashing. I don’t care … I’m aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that 1.5%.
“When you want to diversify an economy you have to work in all sectors: mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, logistics all this. Part of it is tourism and if you want to develop tourism part of it is culture, part of it is your sport sector, because you need to create a calendar.
“Sport used to be 0.4%, now it’s 1.5%, so it’s economic growth, it’s jobs, it’s a calendar, it’s entertainment, it’s tourism. You can see that now we are ranked number one in the Middle East, six years ago we were not in top 10 in the Middle East. We are aiming to get over 100 million visits in 2030, maybe 150. Last year we reached almost 40 million visits from Saudi and globally.”
The 3AM Verdict
Quite simply, the accusations of sportswashing will not go away, and comments such as the ones made by Bin Salman earlier this year will not help. Sport has always had a power for good, something we have seen on a regular basis over the last decade in our own country when the divides in society have grown through the actions of those in power. But, no matter how much it is denied, sportswashing is a tool that has been used throughout time.
As someone that works within football in the North East, the subject has divided opinion following the Saudi takeover at Newcastle United. Every supporter wants the Magpies to progress and continue their upward trajectory under Eddie Howe and for some, the takeover has caused contrasting emotions. There is a section of support who focus on football and football alone. There are some that feel conflicted by the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and there are even some who have walked away from the club.
The sportswashing accusations have caused disagreements, provoked heated arguments and brought some to suggest any success Newcastle enjoy will always be tainted. Some will care, some will not, but one thing is for sure, as Saudi continue to invest in sport, whether that be on Tyneside, in hosting the World Cup or strengthening the LIV Golf tour, the subject of sportswashing will remain high on the agenda.