Saudi Arabia Accused of ‘Sportswashing Its Human-Rights Record — Global Issues

Soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo is on target again for Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr. The Saudi government has invested billions of its oil revenues in recent years in sport, including tennis, golf, boxing and, above all, football. Credit: Shutterstock
  • by Paul Virgo (rome)
  • Inter Press Service

Soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo is on target again for Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr.

England’s Tyrrell Hatton becomes the latest golf star to sign up for the rebel Saudi-backed LIV circuit.

The World Snooker Tour announces a first TV event in Saudi Arabia in March, featuring seven-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan and current world title-holder Luca Brecel and a rule change that will make it possible for players to notch a maximum score of 167, instead of the traditional 147.

If you have seen a news headline about Saudi Arabia recently, there is a good chance that the story is related to sport.

The Saudi government has invested billions of its oil revenues in recent years in sport, including tennis, golf, boxing and, above all, football.

Taken at face value, it is a way for the kingdom to splash its vast wealth on laying on lavish entertainment and boost its GDP in the process.

Critics, however, see something more sinister at play.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the policy is primarily designed to “sportswash” Saudi Arabia’s reputation, hosting major sporting events that attract widespread, positive media attention to divert it away from the hosts’ abuses.

It says that, by becoming the country where Ronaldo and Neymar ply their trade, and hosting events like Real Madrid versus Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, it becomes easier to forget Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and his colleagues jailed, censored or harassed in Saudi Arabia, to not think about women’s and LGBT rights in the kingdom; and ignore the mass killings of migrants along the Saudi border with Yemen.

“Sports unite fans across the political spectrum, and – with due exceptions, such as when national teams of ‘rival’ countries compete against each other – are generally non-political territory,” Claudio Francavilla, HRW Associate Director, EU Advocacy, told IPS.

“They are seen as part of the entertainment industry, and attract media, sponsors, tourists and potential investments.

“When an abusive government hosts a major sporting event for sportswashing purposes, its goal is that media, sponsors and the general public focus on the game, often preceded and followed by flashy opening/closing ceremonies, appreciate the organization and hospitality provided by the host, and promote the hosting government as an open, advanced, great-to-visit-and-make-business-with country – everything but its human rights abuses, to be hidden from the public sphere and debate.

“In other words: look at the ball, look at the fireworks, forget the abuses”.

In May, Saudi human rights activists, and intellectuals released “A People’s Vision for Reform in Saudi Arabia”, a document calling for the release of all political prisoners, the respect of the rights to freedom of expression and of association, the upholding of the rights of women, migrants, and religious minorities, the abolition of torture and the death penalty, reform of the justice system, and a redistribution of the country’s wealth.

HRW says that, instead of complying with their human rights obligations and starting a dialogue with these civil society actors, the Saudi authorities have continued to repress dissent and invest in campaigns and events that whitewash or sportswash their reputation.

Indeed, having already secured the rights to host EXPO 2030 and the 2034 Asian Games, the Saudi government may soon secure the rights to host the 2034 men’s football World Cup and – gallingly, considering the country’s treatment of women – it is bidding for the 2035 women’s World Cup too.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country to indulge in sportwashing.

“The most prominent recent cases include Russia’s 2018 World Cup and China’s 2022 Winter Olympics,” said Francavilla.

“The UAE buying Manchester City FC has been characterized as sportswashing, as well as Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Saudi acquisition of English Premier League club Newcastle United FC”.

Sportswashing does not always have the desired effect mind.

Before the recent Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh, Barcelona warned their fans of potential “severe penalties” regarding same-sex relations and “open displays of support for LGBTI causes, even on social media”, thus drawing attention to the issue.

The 2022 soccer World Cup in Qatar highlighted serious abuses against migrant workers there.

It could be argued that Saudi Arabia is only using sport in the same way that competitions like NBA basketball and Premier League soccer have long been part of the soft power of the United States and Britain, neither of which have unblemished human-rights records.

That said, while Human Rights Watch doesn’t rank countries in its annual report on abuses worldwide, other organizations, such as RSF with its press freedom index, do and States like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and India, rank considerably below the UK and the USA.

“The deliberate use of sports events by governments with abysmal human rights records as a tool to sportswash their reputations, instead of enacting human rights reforms that would do the same job, much more effectively and impactfully, and likely at a much lower economic cost, is particularly despicable,” said Francavilla.

He calls on sports federations, especially world soccer’s governing body FIFA, to take the lead on curtailing this phenomenon, whoever is guilty of it.

“In June 2017, FIFA adopted and published its Human Rights Policy stating that human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials,” he said.

“Human Rights Watch has long called on FIFA to apply clear, objective human rights criteria to all states for hosting both the men’s and women’s World Cup and other tournaments, and for any major commercial sponsorships, including labour protections, press freedom, non-discrimination and inclusion.

“Given past corruption and serious human rights abuses, including discrimination against LGBT people and the unexplained deaths of thousands of migrant workers who built the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, Human Rights Watch has requested FIFA to apply a series of measures for the 2030 and 2034 World Cup bids.

“Those measures would apply to any bidder, be it the US, UK, China or Saudi Arabia”.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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