Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he does not care how the world views his nation’s heavy investment in sports. For him, the resulting GDP increase is all that matters.
“If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing,” said bin Salman in an interview aired Wednesday on Fox News. “I don’t care. I have 1% growth in GDP from sport, and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want.”
Sportswashing is the label some have given to using sports to rehabilitate an image or reputation. Human rights groups and advocates have accused Saudi Arabia of heavily investing in sports and hosting major sporting events as a way to divert attention from human rights abuse.
Human Rights Watch and other agencies have called out Saudi Arabia for a record of abuse that includes killing of hundreds of unarmed Ethiopian migrant in August, imprisoning women’s rights campaigners, the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and a mass execution of 81 people in a single day in 2022.
“He’s done more than say he doesn’t care,” said Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives. “He’s really endorsed the idea of sportswashing as a way of covering up the country’s very serious human rights abuses. We’ve now heard from the top that this is state policy.”
Saudi Arabia’s sports investments top $50 billion since 2016, according to a report released this year by human rights group Grant Liberty. That includes a 10-year contract to host World Wrestling Entertainment events, international golf competitions, Formula 1 events, and even an attempt to land French soccer icon Kylian Mbappe in a $332 million deal.
Bin Salman has been a driving force behind the investments as part of his Vision 2030 strategy, which aims to “diversify” the country’s investments economically, socially and culturally according to its website.
“Vision 2030 has the effect of projecting an image that Saudi Arabia is reforming on a human rights front when it is not,” Worden of Human Rights Watch said. “Sportswashing occurs when a country seeks to host a beloved major sporting event and really weaponize the love that fans have for a sport while also simultaneously not improving the human rights situation”
She said sportwashing poses risks because of the construction it requires.
“Saudi Arabia has not had the sports infrastructure to host major events,” said Worden. “The government is building major stadiums without trade unions to protect migrant workers who are working in deadly heat. Saudi Arabia is trying to buy the halo effect of these major sporting events to wash away its poor international image.”
The Gulf nation will host the 2023 FIFA World Cup football tournament in December. The announcement in February drew outrage from human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Accusations of sportswashing were also levied when the nation’s sovereign wealth fund purchased 80% of English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United. Amnesty International called the $400 million takeover a “PR tool to distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record.”
Previously, representatives of the Gulf nation rejected the concept of sportswashing. When asked about the accusations by CBS News in June, the nation’s minister of sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud said he did not agree with the idea that nations would cover up bad acts with sports.