'Sportswashing' or liberalisation? Mixed reactions on first-ever Saudi ladies golf title

'Sportswashing' or liberalisation? Mixed reactions on first-ever Saudi ladies golf title

The appearance of female golfers, dressed in casual T-shirts and trousers, is a striking anomaly in Saudi Arabia.
Updated 17 Nov, 2020

Denmark's Emily Pedersen won the first-ever women's golf tournament in Saudi Arabia in a tense playoff, but the event designed to soften the kingdom's austere image has drawn charges of being a “sportswashing” exercise.

With a birdie on the extra hole, Pedersen edged out England's Georgia Hall and secured the $150,000 winner's cheque in the inaugural Saudi Ladies International on Sunday at the King Abdullah Economic City close to the western city of Jeddah.

“I'm so happy to be the first winner of this event,” Pedersen said in a statement. “It's been such a fantastic experience to be here in Saudi Arabia.”

But Amnesty International and other rights groups said the event glossed over Saudi's poor human rights record and the jailing of several women activists who have called for reforms.

Liberalisation or sportswashing?

The appearance of female golfers, dressed in casual T-shirts and trousers, is a striking anomaly in Saudi Arabia, that has long imposed a strict dress code on women.

As part of a sweeping liberalisation drive, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has accelerated investment in glitzy sports and entertainment events in a bid to improve its reputation.

In March, the kingdom hosted the world's richest horse race, after staging the Italian and Spanish football Super Cups last year.

It already hosts the Dakar Rally, a 12-day marathon through the Arabian desert, and the all-electric Formula E series, in addition to an array of boxing, golf and tennis events.

And this month, Saudi Arabia announced it will host a Formula One Grand Prix for the first time in 2021.

The expanded sporting schedule is part of a push to draw more international tourists, business and investment, as the kingdom embarks on reforms designed to lessen its reliance on oil revenues. But critics have accused the country's rulers of “sportswashing” to improve their image after long being condemned over rights abuses.

Sportswashing is the hosting of a sporting event, or owning of a team, as a means for a country to improve its reputation, particularly if it has a poor record on human rights.

“Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government's atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom's strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's abuses.”

'New page in Saudi history'

Alexandra Armas, CEO of the Ladies European Tour, shrugged off the criticism and said that taking the opportunity to bring the game to Saudi was an “easy decision”.

“We did discuss it with our members how they would feel about coming to play in Saudi, and it was very accepted,” she told AFP.

Maha Haddioui, a Moroccan and the first Arab professional on the Ladies European Tour, said she was thrilled to be playing in the event and to help write “a new page of history in Saudi”.

“I got a lot of messages from young Saudi women telling me how does it work if I want to start golf [...] so just being part of this, for me it's a winning week. “


Surya Kant Nov 16, 2020 05:08pm
Picture is beautiful
Brownflower Nov 16, 2020 06:05pm
So you want Saudi to never change? All steps towards normalcy - no matter how absurd - should be welcome.
joe Nov 16, 2020 06:53pm
Any country that believes in keeping her 50% population within fourwalls of house ,confine them just to produce children and take care of them, is still living in stone age. Even a country that still is Tribals culture based is progressing,but another with 5000 years of recorded history is still struggling to grant women equval status status all across.
joe Nov 16, 2020 06:57pm
Day is not far of when like UAE ,SA will open bars and allow more liberties to men and women as open society.
Anand Nov 16, 2020 07:13pm
Saudis are moving forward; Turks and Pakistanis are going south
Chrís Dăn Nov 16, 2020 08:06pm
Bravo Saudi Arabia.
Joe Nov 16, 2020 09:00pm
ahh, no Saudi women were playing...
Shukran Nov 16, 2020 09:50pm
Unlike Pakistan, they are trying to change to give the female population a voice. A drastic change is not good, so baby steps first.
Khan Nov 16, 2020 10:52pm
Mere window dressing. The way they treat their own women , poorly, is of more importance. In reply to my Hindustani friends about Pakistan , women here are strong individuals being in the for front of all fields. So don’t loose sleep over it.
Mushtaq A.Mulla Nov 17, 2020 12:01am
@Anand ....Allowing women to play golf is moving forward then you have your priorities all screwed up.
Pathanoo Nov 17, 2020 12:19am
A Journey of Thousand Miles start with a simple step, says a chines Proverb. Saudi Arabia is taking these small First Steps to join the World of normal nations. It MUST be applauded.
Munir Ahmed Nov 17, 2020 01:08am
yet true that it is the game of reputation, but it should be remembered that SA has embark on the path of liberalism, in terms of social change. It is needed, much needed, that suadi have to change its negative policies toward human rights, however. Changing is not an easy and quick process, indeed it takes time. Hope that Saudi would one day shine as bacon of freedom of speech and women liberation in the islamic countries.
Ukasha Rajpoot Nov 17, 2020 02:25am
22 Arab countries with over 400 million poor subjects. Its just a matter of time.
LIAQAT ali khan Nov 17, 2020 07:46am
Very bad direction set by Mr Saudi Shah. There should be democracy rather.
Shakaib Nov 17, 2020 08:12am
The kingdom of sauds are afraid of their diminishing rule
Teddy Nov 17, 2020 08:22am
Amazing progress. Convert nations going behind in time.
mohummadyamin Nov 17, 2020 08:25am
@Surya Kant --------------------Picture reflects all wining force behind the ' CLUB' ,well putted; beautiful golfer.
Sam Nov 17, 2020 08:32am
Trying to create a false image, unless sports of all sorts are allowed for Saudis to participate, including women.
Sri1 Nov 17, 2020 09:12am
@Joe "Saudi women were playing." As of now. Hopefully they will one day take part in everything, unlike other antiquated tribal states.
Abdul Shakoor Khan Nov 17, 2020 12:39pm
Foreigners are allowed but not Arabs. This is not "liberalization", rather "slavery" or "obsession" of the West. It is "sport-swashing" or "eye-washing", or "Culture-Laundering", ( similar to "money-laundering", an illegal act)
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Nov 17, 2020 01:29pm
What else is called "buckling" under tremendous, consistence and persistence four years long pressure from racist and liar Trump and his corrupt and criminal cronies including his crooked, cruel and cunning son-in-law?