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Volume 26 No. 203
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Saudi Arabia Hopes Western Sports Help Diversify Economy

The government of Saudi Arabia is "accelerating efforts to diversify its economy, cultivate domestic spending and polish its global image by broadening cultural offerings centered on Western sports and entertainment," according to Alan Rappeport of the N.Y. TIMES. The relationship between international brands like WWE and the Saudi government is "symbiotic," as companies "seek untapped markets while the kingdom tries to move its economy beyond dependence on oil production." But the push "comes with complications." Western businesses and star athletes have "faced backlash and boycotts amid accusations that they are aiding a public relations initiative from an oppressive Saudi government." Saudi Arabia "made sports a priority" beginning in '16. Last year, Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud, now Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., "set up meetings" with the NBA, MLS, World Surf League and F1 to "discuss bringing international sports to the kingdom." On Saturday, Andy Ruiz Jr. will fight Anthony Joshua in a heavyweight title bout outside Riyadh. Critics of Saudi Arabia "contend that its embrace of Western sports and entertainment is a diversion to distract from a grim human rights record." As such, "doing business in Saudi Arabia remains fraught" for Western athletes and entertainers. For example, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal "faced criticism" last year for "planning to play an exhibition tennis match in Jeddah." They "eventually withdrew, citing an injury" to Nadal (N.Y. TIMES, 12/3).

DESERT LINKS: GOLFWEEK's Julie Williams noted while Phil Mickelson has been a "familiar face" at the PGA Tour's Waste Management Phoenix Open, he announced that he will play in the Saudi Int'l instead in '20. Organizers for the Saudi Int'l have reportedly "secured commitments" from several other "big names in the game" as well, including Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson, Shane Lowry and Sergio Garcia. In the run-up to last year's inaugural Saudi Int'l, players "drew criticism for committing to play." Taking that into account, Mickelson's decision is "at least a little bit surprising," especially "considering that he is the face" of the Scottsdale event. Mickelson missed the cut in his debut in '89 but has played every year since, except '90 (GOLFWEEK.com, 12/2).