What do you get for the man who has everything? Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, is said to have a $500 million yacht, a $450 million Leonardo painting and a $300 million French château. Now he’s acquired a new bauble: American golf. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has negotiated a controlling interest in the main US golf tournament, the PGA Tour, merging it with a rival league the fund already owns, LIV Golf. There was an appalled reaction from Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly killed on MBS’s orders. She called it ‘the worst face of sportswashing’, telling journalists: ‘It shows there are no limits to what money can buy.’
Sportswashing is part of something the Saudis have been doing for years – chequebook diplomacy – though now they have a lot more money to spare and are splashing it around much more aggressively. Sarah Leah Whitson, of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organisation founded by Khashoggi, told me the deal makes no sense in purely economic terms. ‘It’s really important to know how much of a premium the Saudis have paid,’ she says. ‘This is a political move.’ In fact, the FT estimates the Saudis will pump $3 billion into their new purchase. That translates into astonishing rewards for individual players. Some already on the Saudi payroll are reportedly getting $200 million a year.
But those who climb into bed with the Saudis are like Demi Moore in that terrible film Indecent Proposal. The money is too much to resist and so they take it, but end up feeling dirty. The PGA’s rationalisations sound especially desperate because only last year they invoked Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in 9/11 to stop players being poached by LIV.