Two separate issues have made the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia grab headlines across the world. The first was the agreement in March 2023 whereby the Kingdom and Iran stepped back from their traditionally adversarial and hostile postures and embarked on the road to restoring greater normalcy to their relationship. Since that agreement, both countries have announced the reopening of their embassies and the Saudi foreign minister visited Tehran in mid-June. The Iranian president has been invited to visit Saudi Arabia as well. This repositioning and rapprochement signify a major change in the geopolitics of South West and West Asia; that it attracted so much comment is, therefore, hardly surprising.
The other development was not so much in geopolitics or foreign policy but, most surprisingly, in golf. It is not a sport associated with the Kingdom where people prefer soccer. Yet the golf world and, to a great extent, the financial world have been obsessed for the past eighteen months with a Saudi foray into what many see, with pardonable exaggeration, as being at the heart of the American way of life — professional golf.
By way of context and background, the United States of America is the world leader in golf in a way that is almost unique. It has, for instance, some 16,000 golf courses; next on the list is Japan with about 3,000. It produces the vast majority — and not just Tiger Woods — of the best players in the world and hosts tournaments with the highest prize money. Scotland may well have been where golf emerged but for at least the past half century it is the US that has been the international centre of golf. The US Professional Golfers’ Association and the large number of tournaments held under its aegis with the huge crowds each draws are at the heart of competitive golf today. For an aspiring golfer anywhere in the world aiming high, the PGA tour has to be in the sights as the mecca of the sport.
The calm of this ordered and hegemonic universe was shattered last year when a new golf league was set up by the Public Investment Fund — the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. It started a parallel golf tour — LIV Golf. Its tournaments are organised in a different format and it started attracting some of the top players of the PGA tour to join it by way of huge pay cheques.
The howls of outrage that followed made this more than a golf issue. To many playing in the PGA tour, especially those running it and its many fans, the Saudi-backed tour was sacrilege and a breaching of the citadel that safeguarded golf’s values. Those players who had joined the LIV tour were suspended from the PGA and subjected to a barrage of criticism, beginning with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and how its move to golf was ‘sportswashing’. The Saudi crown prince’s alleged role in the brutal murder of the journalist and government critic, Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi intolerance of gays and, most of all, those involved in the 9/11 hijacking and attacks were Saudi nationals — all this was grist to the mill in the defence of the PGA tour. In brief, to many, this was a cherished American institution being undermined by tainted Saudi money. At the other end was the view that diagnosed the issue as a new start-up threatening an existing monopoly and the renegade stars were only athletes trying to get the best deal for the remainder of their playing days.
But that there was more than golf involved was evident from the beginning. One of LIV Golf’s biggest supporters is the former US president, Donald Trump: he also owns about a dozen golf courses. His support means that all the polarisations of US politics now extended also to the golf arena or rather on to the golf course.
Yet an even wider view is possible in terms of what golf is seen to represent in global politics today. About a decade and a half ago, Richard N. Haass, the then president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the US’s most influential and venerable think tank, had put forward what he called the “Fairway theory of History” — there was a positive correlation between the number of golf courses a country had and its openness as a society. The obvious contrast with and litmus test was that of South Korea (about seven hundred) versus North Korea (perhaps one or in single digits). A corollary to this was that countries with large numbers of golf courses had strong relationships with the US. Japan, Canada, West Europe, virtually the whole of Southeast Asia are good examples. There are exceptions that do not fit in but as a general proposition it is not without merit.
So how does Saudi Arabia fit into this world? Not directly, since golf is hardly a popular sport in the Kingdom. The motivation for the Public Investment Fund’shuge investment in golf derives not from the ‘Fairway theory’ but is related to the reimagining of Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He believes in remaking the Kingdom into a country not dependent on hydrocarbons, and in this alternative future, tourism, sports and culture all play a role. Alongside there is also possibly a need to soften Saudi Arabia’s external image. Golf, in all these calculations, is an effective vehicle to further these ambitions. The attention that the Saudi golf bid has received may have outweighed the Saudi-Iran agreement. That itself says something about the profile of golf today, especially in the US.
The LIV Golf story did not, however, end in continuing acrimony and blackballing of the upstart league by the PGA. On June 6, the PGA tour and LIV Golf announced that they had reached an agreement to what amounts to a merger. After the rhetoric of the past year, this was extraordinary and there were and are many howls of betrayal. But the PGA had gauged the Saudi PIF’s deep pockets and realised the futility of a battle of attrition. The larger takeaway is, of course, that just as power is shifting in different directions, so is soft power.
T.C.A. Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan and Singapore