It is a small detail that has been glossed over in the face of more puzzling aspects to the story, but it is one that forms part of a larger and more uneasy trend that has been slowly developing. When Wayne Rooney was arrested at Washington’s Dulles Airport in December, his private jet had been returning from a presumably lucrative sojourn to Riyadh, the Saudi Kingdom capital; it would be a righteous tale, but it is rather unlikely that a mix-up with sleeping pills came about through Rooney’s sheer indignation at the humanitarian crises he witnessed, or the vivid imagery of a public execution, now forged indelibly into his mind.
No, Rooney was an access all areas guest of Geox Dragon Racing, the American motorsport team who compete in Formula E: a relatively new, electrically-fuelled pursuit that has caught the eye, and the wallet, almost paradoxically so, of the prescient petro-magnates of Saudi Arabia.
Dubbed ‘Mario Kart’ of the streets due to the set of luminous blue LED lights affixed to each driver’s halo – fluorescing in a newfangled “attack mode”, each driver’s personal quiver of golden mushrooms – the concept has been incredibly successful. The spectacle is modern and attractive, the carbon footprint is diluted, pit stops are a thing of the past, and, more markedly in the eye of investors, there is no overriding sense of the engrained hierarchical structure that pervades through modern Formula 1. For Felipe Massa, the attraction as a driver is rooted in this mentality: “Maybe many drivers can win the championship.”
For the riches of a Saudi dictatorship, however, the seduction is of a more nefarious kind; eventually, the oil will run dry, and the economy badly needs to diversify and develop more sustainable, multi-faceted income. On the face of it, investing in renewables seems logical, innocuous even. The sovereign wealth fund has ploughed money into Uber, and more recently the American electric car start-up Lucid.
But Formula E is a good place to start because it represents the subtle dichotomy between the State’s public pontifications on infrastructure and access, and its private desperation to reverse a tarnished image in the West by opening up the Kingdom to the world of sport. Now wedlocked into a 10-year contract to host the season curtain call at the street circuit in Riyadh, the Saudi regime has handily positioned itself at the vanguard of a global sport just experiencing its revolution. Unsurprisingly, the official take adopts a different angle, and chooses to praise the “mission to accelerate the transition and uptake of clean transportation”, and to “inspire the next generation of technicians and engineers within Saudi Arabia.”
To entangle itself so inexorably into the global economy, to become a major player and a central trade hub even when the barrels are not so bountiful, the state must also radically overhaul an archaic, authoritarian society. Or, more appositely, engineer the impression it is doing so: Vision 2030 is perhaps the most well-documented transformation plan in history – its reformative roots promising to overhaul women’s rights and develop the education and recreation sectors – and well, that’s the point. Armed with a burgeoning portfolio of events, the sporting industry is the perfect global circus through which the Kingdom is purporting to have changed.
The story is already ten years down the line, next door in the Gulf, in the UAE. Under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City have become one of Europe’s putative powers, a genuine heavyweight and a home to the most attractive football in the land. In a brilliant analysis of the ownership last year, Nicholas McGeehan forensically unpicked the true and alarming scale to which the club is acting as a baby blue smokescreen to continued human rights violations. When British national Matthew Hedges was detained and psychologically tortured under alleged counts of spying in the Middle East, the polarised reaction was an uneasy snapshot of the process of sportswashing in action, betraying to the naked eye the conflict of interest that many sporting governing bodies have been welded to by prostrating so willingly to the Emirati cash.
British flat horse racing is another pursuit locked enduringly into business, its entire revenue model increasingly subsisting on the affluent region’s penchant for the sport. European football is, quite literally, being engulfed by its thirst for tainted capital from the region; like a teenage foray into a Colombian narcos gang, it soon becomes apparent that these are deals of the interminable variety, with far-reaching consequences.
Worrying, then, given the incessant and unabating stream of civilian deaths in Yemen through Saudi-led coalition air-strikes, how seamlessly Mohammad Bin Salman – The UAE crown prince Mohammad Bin Zayed’s trustee and partner in torture – was able to enter the market, brokering deals to bring each of the major sports to his country, one by one.
For the current generation of sports stars, perhaps being desensitised to the metropolis of Dubai, the UAE’s glorified tourist department, blinded by its beauty and attracted by its undoubtable allure, is at least a forgivable act; to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Saudi Arabia though, is reprehensible and irresponsible. No wonder Amnesty International labels the West “deeply hypocritical” in its dealings with the state.
As a society we must wake up and see how wrong this feels. England’s leading international goalscorer uploading his “unbelievable day” in the Saudi capital to his Instagram feed with the same rhetorical flourish as if it were Mykonos or Barbados; Richard Branson assuming directorship of the luxury new Red Sea tourist resort in exchange for not so discrete investment into his Virgin Galactica Scheme; the president of FIFA ceaselessly trumpeting a
virulent Saudi-led $12 billion plan to corrupt club football just after witnessing his predecessor thrown in jail for handing the World Cup to their arch-enemies Qatar, willingly placing the most popular sport in the world slap bang in the centre of its most politically turbulent war.
And yet, before the tragic murder of its most outspoken critic after a series of punishing columns in the Washington Post, there was curiously little introspection. The notion that Saudi Arabia may so brazenly purchase our compliance through our most-loved escape, sport, is ridiculous, but there are clear signs it can work.
Do our sports stars have a duty to speak out? To positively mould their sphere of influence? Surely, we too, as fans, ticket-holders, tweeters, commenters, have a duty to question, to resist, to inform. Our support has never need be unconditional, and never should be.
If you look hard enough, there are signs that it may be happening. The Italian SuperCoppa, an itinerant exhibition that also counts Doha and Tripoli among its more exotic destinations, has come under heavy fire for its proposed location in Jeddah. More importantly though, as the date nears, Italian fans are now discovering the true extent of the horrors that their league has plundered them into: a Saudi-imposed ban on unaccompanied women in the stadium forcibly segregating legions of support, a rupture through the very heart of the game. If money could talk, then it would almost certainly have the voice of Serie A president Gaetano Micciche, befuddling his way through the chaos with a robotic loyalty to his contract: “Until last year, women could not attend any sporting event, [this is a] historic first.”
It is not the only sport to touch down in the country in January. Golf is a pursuit that has willingly integrated Dubai into its standard fare, as a result making its stars richer than ever but flirting dangerously with a post-Tiger era where most would struggle to tell their Bryson DeChambeaus from their Xander Schauffeles, and only the majors and Ryder Cup retain their true aura. The European Tour is ploughing on with its decision to introduce Saudi Arabia to its gilded Desert Swing series; with a tournament structure that allows players to select the events they roll into town for, it leaves little to the imagination why such a stellar field has been assembled for the inaugural event.
Surely, then, Europe’s Ryder Cup golden boys, the iceman Henrik Stenson and the eminently likeable Justin Rose, could be relied upon to recalibrate their moral compasses to the real world from which sports stars are so often allowed to slip from. Instead, if you squint hard enough, you can just about make out the spinning black and white wheels where their eyes should be.
Henrik Stenson: “The course looks spectacular and I’ve heard a lot about the Kingdom’s plans to grow golf in the region and I’m excited to be a part of it,”
Justin Rose: “I’ve heard a lot of positive things about Saudi Arabia and I’m delighted to see a new tournament added to the European Tour schedule.”
Smile and wave boys smile and wave.