Saudi Arabia’s recent massive investment in global sports has fueled accusations of sports washing: the use of sports and athletes to wash the country’s image while dressing up as a repressive and authoritarian regime.

there is Cristiano Ronaldo’s A $200 million-a-season deal to play for the team in Riyadh, a 10-year contract with WWE, a star-studded tennis tournament, and the purchase of English Premier League soccer team Newcastle United. For critics, these lavish investments are part of an effort to restore the country’s image and burnish its tarnished reputation.

Saudi Arabia’s Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud told 60 Minutes correspondent John Wertheim that he does not believe sports can be manipulated in this way.

“I don’t agree with that, with that word [sportswashing]. Because I think if you go to different parts of the world, you bring people together,” he said. “Everyone, come, see Saudi Arabia, see what it is and then make your own decision. Look at yourself. It’s okay if you don’t like it.”

Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud and John Wertheim

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Investment in sports is an essential part of a broader economic plan, Prince Abdulaziz said. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanof “Vision 2030,” a $7 trillion There is a plan to diversify the economy Beyond oil, softening even the country’s most restrictive social conventions and laws.

But it is the actions of the crown prince, known as MBS, who have tarnished the country’s reputation by intensifying and complicating his entry into the sport. A CIA report says MBS approved the assassination and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist in 2018. Jamal Khashoggi. Under MBS’s rule, the number of executions has increased dramatically 81 people were beheaded On a day last March. The mildest criticism of the state, even on Twitter, has been met with detention, torture and prolonged and arbitrary detention. Jail sentence.

Some social progress has been made in recent years: women are now allowed to drive, cover their hair, carry passports and travel without a male guardian.

On the country’s fields and in gyms and recreation centers, young Saudis — men and women — are embracing sports. Rasha Al Khamis, the country’s first female certified boxing trainer, took part in the much-hyped heavyweight title fight “Class on the Dunes” in 2019.

“I would never imagine this: me, going to war, driving my car and participating in war in my own country,” Al Khamis said. “That’s a big change. You can feel the change is tangible.”

But critics and human rights activists say Saudi Arabia is unfit to host international sporting events.

Activist Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister Luzine was arrested and jailed for leading the Saudi women-to-drive movement, says Saudi Arabia’s investment in the sport has coincided with severe political repression. That leaves athletes and fans to choose.

Lina Al-Hathalol

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“My message is why do you go to Saudi Arabia and stay silent about what is happening on the ground? Why, why don’t you speak up for all the families of the imprisoned prisoners who cannot speak out?” Al-Hathalol said. “Because when you go to Saudi Arabia, you’re part of this cover-up machine, whether you like it or not.”

The country’s biggest ever swing in sports is $2.5 billion Visit LIV, which has divided golf. Tiger Woods turned down $800 million from the Saudis to join LIV, dismissing this rivalry on the PGA Tour as “endless pit money.”

This past December, during the off season for pro tennis, Riyadh hosted an exhibition full of top 10 stars. Australia’s Nick Kyrgios was oblivious to the real draw.

“Well, the money is pretty good, I’m not going to lie,” he said.

Despite a desert of empty seats—and little in the way of television rights, which are usually the lifeblood of sports—players were paid millions to show up. Taylor Fritz of California won the weekend event, earning $1 million in prize money.

Just last month, soccer’s governing body FIFA responded to player protests and rejected Saudi Tourism’s sponsorship offer for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. These ethical dilemmas will intensify as Saudi Arabia increases its investment in sports.

For Lina Al-Hathloul, the billions spent on sports have a clear mission.

“I think the Saudi government, the Saudi regime and MBS, they want people to think of Ronaldo when they think of Saudi and not Khashoggi,” Al-Hathloul said.

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