Last month, the foreign registration documentation for Saudi Arabia’s 2018 lobbying campaign in the United States were made available online. The documents shed light on the kingdom’s aggressive sportswashing strategy that included meetings and business calls with the commissioners for Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Baseball (MLB), as well as officials from the National Basketball Association (NBA), World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
Saudi Arabia’s strategic interest in sports and entertainment events dates back to November 2016 when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the kingdom’s General Sports Authority – the government body responsible for the development of sports in the kingdom – to set up a Sports Development Fund that bolstered sports activity in the country. The objectives of the fund were to privatize football clubs to increase participation, promote new sports events, and add 40,000 jobs to the economic marketplace as part of Vision 2030, a development proposal that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country would be free of its heavy dependence on oil.
Given that Saudi Arabia has historically opposed Western-influenced sports and entertainment events, these recent developments seemed to represent a significant change in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation’s policies and a pivot away from the kingdom’s longstanding societal limitations.
Since Bin Salman’s policy shift was imposed in 2016, the kingdom has hosted the Race of Champions (ROC) motorsport event, secured a long-term deal with the WWE that includes multiple shows a year, hosted boxing events headlined by stars like Amir Khan, hosted a PGA European Tour golf event, and even secured the rights to host the December rematch between former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, arguably the biggest boxing pay-per-view of the year.
While Saudi Arabia’s pivot towards a more liberal society is a welcome change for the conservative kingdom, it also raises important questions about the government’s relatively sudden interest in sports and whether it could be construed as a soft power tactic to help distract from the kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses and the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen – a war that killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and has left 14m people at risk of starvation.
More recently, Saudi Arabia’s sports-centric lobbying offensive has been the result of an urgent need for the kingdom to rebrand itself following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was reportedly killed and dismembered with a bone-saw. Saudi’s attorney general later stated that the murder was premeditated, and the CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
In light of Saudi’s recent diplomatic controversy, the kingdom has doubled down on its lobbying strategy, which, according to recently released documents, included meetings and business calls with all the leading commissioners and sports bodies in the United States.
Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority enlisted the services of the Churchill Ripley Group, an international consulting firm “specializing in growth” that boasts “unique access to Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the Middle East”. The LA-based firm represents the General Sports Authority by working with Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the daughter of former US ambassador Prince Bandar and the first female president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, to help set up meetings in the US with various companies and executives to discuss the development of Saudi’s burgeoning entertainment sector. The Group’s roles and responsibilities, according to the foreign registration documents, also involve negotiating favourable market terms for “GSA funded initiatives,” finding direct investment opportunities, and preparing Princess Reema for her high level meetings. By placing Princess Reema at the helm of this lobbying and media campaign, the Saudi government is attempting to disarm critics who bemoaned the monarchy’s lack of progressive values or limited rights for women.
The firm’s services, which are done without a formal contract, cost the Saudi government $22,000 a month.
According to the foreign registration documentation (filled out by Anna Lewis, the founder and former CEO of the Churchill Ripley firm), Princess Reema had conversations with the likes of Kobe Bryant regarding the “development of basketball in Saudi Arabia”; Sophie Goldschmidt, the CEO of World Surf League, regarding the “development of the sport of surfing in Saudi Arabia”; the CEO of Thinkwell regarding the “development of a sports mall in Saudi Arabia”; Bing and Twitch about advancing esports in the kingdom; the NHL commissioner on developing floor hockey in Saudi; Madison Square Garden regarding the development of “stadium infrastructure”; and many more.
The documents also revealed that Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority held several press events in 2018, including a public event with the Atlantic Council, the Middle East Policy Council, and another event hosted by the Saudi government for Saudi US CEO forum. Princess Reema was also interviewed by MSNBC, Reuters, NPR, ESPN, and the Washington Post as part of her media campaign to promote sports development in Saudi Arabia. She was also interviewed by CNN about women driving in Saudi Arabia.
It should be noted that the documentation used for this reporting only lists the Churchill Ripley’s strategic consulting proposal, as well as the business calls and meetings that took place between Princess Reema and the various sports entities. They did not include any follow-up information on the fallout of such meetings, or whether they were even successful.
And yet, the documents shed light on the Saudi government’s extensive sports lobbying strategy. These examples of sportswashing – a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record – highlight the lengths the Saudi monarchy is willing to go to in order to rebrand themselves in the wake of recent atrocities. It also emphasizes the scope of Saudi’s ambitions, which include potentially building new stadiums, and investing in esports and less mainstream sports such as field hockey and surfing.
As of the time of writing, none of the MLS, WSL, Madison Square Garden, or the Bryant Stibel investment group have responded to a request for comment from the Guardian. An NBA spokesperson said: “NBA representatives regularly meet with basketball federations from around the world.”
- This article was amended on 3 September 2019 to clarify that only representatives from the NBA attended a meeting with Saudi lobbyists in 2018, not the commissioner himself.