Posted on March 2021
REVEALED: Saudi Arabia’s $1.5bn Sports-washing programme
New analysis, published in a report from Grant Liberty, reveals the incredible $1.5bn scale of the Saudi sports-washing programme as the regime seeks to use the glamour of elite sport to obscure its record of human rights abuse, state-sponsored murder, torture, and the continued bombing campaign in Yemen.
The report is published in the week the 2021 Formula One begins on Sunday 28 March – a season which culminates in the sport’s first ever race in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi investments stretch across the top of the world’s most popular sports from football, to boxing, golf, tennis, motorsports and horse racing, and event chess, wrestling and Esports. Marquee investments include:
- $650m in a ten year deal with Formula 1
- $145m in a three year deal with the Spanish Football Association
- $100m for the Anthony Joshua / David Ruiz ‘Clash on the Dunes’
- $60m in two years at the Saudi Cup, the richest race in the horse-racing world
- $33m to snooker for an annual masters event for ten years
- $15m in appearance fees for a single Saudi International men’s golf tournament
- And a staggering $500m to the WWE in a ten-year deal from 2014
And the spending shows no sign of stopping. There are currently reported bids for:
- $200m for the Joshua Fury fight
- $180m offer to Real Madrid for sponsorship through the country’s Qiddiya project
And, of course, there are those that got away – deals that failed following an uproar
- $400m purchase of Newcastle United
- $100m UFC deal
- $6m offer to both Ronaldo and Messi to be the face of Visit Saudi
It’s important to remember what all of this spending is designed to obscure – human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Not just the bombing in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi but the continued abuse of prisoners of conscience. We profile six in the report:
- Loujain al-Hathloul,imprisoned for the crime of campaigning for a woman’s right to drive, she has been tortured and sexually assaulted by her captors. Today she is released but not free.
- Samar Badawi– women’s rights activist still in prison. She has also faced torture and abuse
- Abdulrahman al-Sadhan – humanitarian, currently on trial after 3 years in prison, his ‘crime’ is believed to relate to social media
- Salman al-Odah– reformist preacher who is potentially facing the death penalty in part of claling for peace with Qatar, with whom Saudi Arabia has now come to an agreement, yet the threat remains
- Martaja Qureiris – arrested for attending a protest at the age of 10, he has now spent more than 5% of his life in solitary confinement
- Aida al-Ghamdi – arrested and tortured because of the peaceful activism of her son
Publishing the analysis, Grant Liberty spokesperson, Lucy Rae said,
“Saudi Arabia is trying to use the good reputation of the world’s best loved sports stars to obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture and murder.
“From the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to the imprisonment, torture and sexual abuse of women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi, this is a shameful regime, committing human rights abuses on an industrial scale.
“The world’s leading sports stars might not have asked to be part of a cynical marketing plan to distract the world from the brutality – but that’s what is happening. Now they have to decide whether to help the regime cover up its crimes or take a stand.
“Some honourable exceptions like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have refused to play the game – but too many have not.
“In the next year Saudi Arabia is hoping to host Lewis Hamilton at the Grand Prix and potentially Anthony Joshua in a world title fight. These two athletes have shown an interest in activism in the last year – now it’s time for them to lead the world’s sporting icons in saying no to Saudi Arabia.”
Notes to Editors
Methodology: The analysis is based on reported figures of deals between entities of the Saudi state and major sporting governing bodies or individuals. All deals were agreed in the Vision 2030 era (post April 2016), with the exception of the WWE deal which began in 2014 and is set to continue until 2023. The list includes vehicles directly controlled by the Saudi authorities (NEOM, Qiddiya, Visit Saudi etc), but excludes the financial dealings of Saudi individuals (eg members of the royal family) not under the direct control of the State. Where the level of Saudi investment in a deal is not readily available we have simply marked the cash sum as undisclosed. As such, these totals are likely to be an underestimate of the true scale if investment.
More information about prisoners of conscience in Sauid Arbaia can be found here:
6 prisoners are profiled in the report – they are:
Loujain al-Hathloul is a celebrated human rights activist and former Nobel Prize nominee. She is primarily known for her iconic campaign for the right to drive. Loujain was arrested alongside other activists in May 2018. Along with several prominent Saudi women’s human rights defenders and activists, Loujain was arrested in May 2018. Since her arrest in March 2018, Loujain has been subjected to threats of sexual assault, torture, prolonged solitary confinement and enforced disappearance, and was recently forced into a hunger strike to secure access to her family, after being subjected to enforced disappearance. Today she has been released from prison, but she is not free. She remains on probation, under a travel ban, and unable to express herself freely.
Samar Badawi is a multi-award winning women’s rights activist, who has been imprisoned on multiple occasions for her role in fighting two of Saudi Arabia’s most egregious anti-women laws, the driving ban (now rescinded) and the male guardianship law. In 2018, she was arrested on July 30 as the authorities’ summer purge came to an end. She remains in prison today, where since her arrest she has been victim to the systematic abuse of her human rights in prison including torture and sexual assault.
An iconic religious reformer, Salman al-Odah has frequently been arrested, and held by the Saudi state, beginning in 1994. Most recently, he was arrested in 2017, from which he continues to be held awaiting trial. In making the arrest, security officers made clear that the reason for his arrest was a Twitter post in which he had welcomed a phone conversation between the Emir of Qatar and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as a step towards resolving the current Gulf crisis. In the tweet he said: “Praise the Lord… O God, soften their hearts toward each other for the good of their peoples.” Although that crisis is resolved, al-Odah remains in prison.
Murtaja Qureiris was arrested as a 13-year-old for crimes he allegedly committed as a 10-year-old. His crime was to lead 30 other children in a rudimentary protest march for human rights during the Arab Spring in 2011. He is believed to have spent a year and three months of his time in jail in solitary confinement, more than 5% of his life – he is just 20 years old.
A humanitarian, employed by the Red Crescent in Saudi Arabia, Abdulrahman was arrested in March 2018, apparently for voicing peaceful opinions on social media. Since his arrest he has been tortured, held in solitary confinement, separated from his family and forced into hunger strikes. His family are forced to rely on updates on his condition smuggled out of prison by his fellow detainees. He was first able to communicate with his family 23 months after his arrest.
Aida al-Ghamdi and her youngest son Adel were arrested and brutalised by Saudi authorities in March 2018. Aida’s son, Abdullah al-Ghamidi is a human rights activist granted political asylum in the UK in 2012. He has written movingly about his mother’s condition for Euronews. He writes: “the circumstances of their arrest makes it clear that my activism was the cause. My mother and brother were tortured in front of each other after they were arrested. They were severely beaten and cigarettes were extinguished on their skin. They were all kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.”