It’s no secret that PGA and European Tour players field criticism for playing in the Saudi International. The event just completed its third edition and for a second time, Dustin Johnson is the champion. Causes for scrutiny are largely rooted in Saudi Arabia human rights issues where women have only been driving cars for three years. By Western perspectives, there’s some work to do. Not to mention that in 2021, a cold beer (or any alcohol for that matter) on a hot day at the golf course is illegal in the country.
In the past when asked about human rights in Saudi, players such as Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau replied similarly, “I’m a professional golfer. I go to Saudi to play golf because that’s what I do for a living.”
No doubt, these are valid, stock answers — professional golfers are in the business of getting paid to play golf and there’s plenty of money to be made in the Middle East. But there’s a larger issue here which was spurred by Saudi’s leadership. Introduced and driven by Mohammad bin Salman, the nation’s crown prince and leader, Saudi Vision 2030 was launched back in 2016.
“It [Saudi Vision 2030] expresses our long-term goals and expectations and it is built upon our country’s unique strengths and capabilities. It guides our aspirations towards a new phase of development – to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions to succeed in a thriving economy,” says Royal Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The campaign’s aim is to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. Key goals include reinforcing economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil international trade, and promoting a softer and more secular image of the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia]. All parts of the initiative are documented on the Saudi Vision 2030 website.
The European Tour stop, the Saudi International is a cog for the tourism component. King Abdullah Economic City, the event’s host site is a brand new community with the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, condos, villas, hotels and marina — all along the aqua waters of the Red Sea.
Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, the two primary golf advocates in the region are active in growing the game for all golfers. The organizations are particularly active in the women’s game — they hosted the Saudi Ladies International at Royal Greens in November 2020 and earlier this month announced the 2021 Aramco Team Series to be held in New York, London, Singapore and King Abdullah Economic City, with each tournament carrying a $1 million purse.
And the game is growing in other parts of Saudi with the help of legends — Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman are building golf courses near the country’s capital of Riyadh and Ernie Els is in negotiations for a new golf course build as well.
The Golden Bear included, everyone playing professionally or doing business in Saudi Arabia are criticized, but why? Saudi’s leadership have expressed commitment to change, and isn’t activity better for change versus doing nothing at all?
Els seems to think so and WBGD spoke with “The Big Easy” after round two at the Saudi International, “In our country [South Africa], sport really brought people together. We came through a period of change in the late 80’s and 1990’s. President Mandela at that time, really used the power of sport to bring people together. The whole nation would root for the national rugby team who won the world cup back in those days and our soccer team, and individual sportsmen like myself, Gary Player and Ratief Goosen and a lot of other players.”
It’s easy to be critical from afar — it’s more difficult to travel across the world and check it out firsthand. And for critics that don’t agree with what’s happening in Saudi Arabia — isn’t it better that pros are going to Saudi Arabia to help along the Saudi Vision 2030 agenda? Or would it be better to stay home, point fingers and criticize?