The emergence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a player in the global sports industry has created a leadership dilemma for sports organizations.
This month’s Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr. heavyweight title fight was the highest profile in a series of sporting events held in the country thus far including WWE, Formula E, and golf.
Next week, the Supercoppa Italiana will be played in Saudi Arabia for a second year, part of a five-year contract with Serie A. And the Dakar rally, the Supercopa de España, an international tennis event, a leading equestrian festival, and the European Tour’s Saudi International golf tournament will all take place in the coming weeks. The owners of these events were attracted by lucrative offers that far exceed those of the competition.
The country’s deliberate foray into sports hosting is a byproduct of the kingdom’s desire to broaden the scope of its economy beyond petroleum, instituted in its ‘Vision 2030’ plan.
While some of the aims of the vision are laudable, the nation’s human rights record is most assuredly not. Among the many things that have created a deserved reputation as a serial violator of human rights are the kingdom’s stances on homosexuality and women’s rights, and the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Amnesty International has condemned Saudi Arabia’s use of sports to burnish its image.
The kingdom argues that ongoing and planned reforms are creating a new landscape. The newly acquired right of women to drive, the creation of a new tourist visa, and a new soccer competition played in November with seven women’s teams are all put forth as evidence that Saudi Arabia is changing.
What are the leaders of sports organizations contemplating a relationship with Saudi Arabia to do? Do you take the country’s General Sports Authority at face value and attempt to use sports to change the world? Are you prepared to handle the inevitable criticism of those, both internal and external, who will claim you are merely aiding and abetting sportwashing in exchange for a financial windfall?
How do you address your stakeholders’ concerns about their own personal safety if they are traveling to the country? And what about concerns raised by the women and LGBT+ members of your organization? How will this decision affect morale? How does it fit within your own ethical code? What does your gut tell you? And, ultimately, is the money and opportunity to reach a new audience worth it?
Saudi Arabia’s words and deeds indicate that the country intends to be involved in the sports industry for the long haul. Will your organization be there?