Bin Salman’s sportswashing quip reflected growing power but was perhaps a mistake

<span>Photograph: Fox News</span>
Photograph: Fox News

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia gave the impression of having swallowed a spreadsheet during his midweek interview with Fox News. Every answer he gave seemed to have a statistic attached. He reeled off figures comparing the economic growth of his country and South Korea. He estimated the level of annual profits in the global esports sector. He said he had a target to grow Saudi’s sports industry to 1.5% of national GDP. If that meant being accused of sportswashing, he added, then so be it.

“If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing,” Bin Salman told Fox’s man by the Red Sea, Bret Baier. “I don’t care … I’m aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that 1.5%.”

Related: Mohammed bin Salman says he will ‘continue doing sport washing’ for Saudi Arabia

Baier’s response to Bin Salman’s stats blizzard was positive. “You’re a data guy,” he observed, beaming. In fact the crown prince was received positively by his interlocutor throughout. Bin Salman was “a visionary leader”, according to Baier at the top of the interview. “I have talked to a lot of your citizens and that’s how they describe you,” he said. “And you didn’t even plant them!”

It may be that the possibility of an unchallenging encounter proved persuasive when Bin Salman was deciding whether to undertake his first full interview in English since becoming Saudi’s de facto ruler in 2017. It is certainly the case that the rightwing American broadcaster was the place to make off-the-cuff jokes about sportswashing.

The practice of using sport to rehabilitate a country’s reputation (in this case one that casts Saudi under Bin Salman as one of the most repressive regimes in the world, where people can be sentenced to death for tweeting) is a phenomenon observed many times in recent years, particularly in reference to last year’s World Cup in Qatar.

Anyone who visited Doha for the World Cup will be familiar with defensive arguments against sportswashing: of accusations of selective criticism on the part of western media and human rights organisations; of hypocrisy when it comes to westerners recognising failings in their own countries. These arguments can be heard in Saudi Arabia too, but at far lower volume. Instead those involved in the grand Saudi sporting project are likely to react as Bin Salman did to accusations of sportswashing. They are simply not threatened by the term.

The majority of Bin Salman’s interview with Baier perhaps showed why. In the main it concentrated on his increasingly prominent role as global statesman. The crown prince spoke of his hopes for the normalisation of relations between his country and Israel, dependent on a brighter future for the Palestinian people. He defended President Xi of China and talked up the Brics group of nations.

The range of topics reflected the fact that Saudi Arabia is now a geopolitical power in a multipolar world. It is also, still, one of the planet’s largest sources of oil and a country that, by restricting production alongside Russia this summer, can drive the price up by a third in a matter of months. Saudi has money, power and influence, and while the first of these remains there is little reason to think the last two will fall away.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t need sport to distract from its human rights record as it will face no consequences for its actions in the first place. But that is not to say that it is immune to criticism, or that it is guaranteed Bin Salman’s visions will come to pass.

Baier met the crown prince on the island of Sindalah, one of the numerous districts that are to form part of the new mega city of Neom. Baier called Sindalah “incredibly beautiful”; what footage viewers were shown suggested a golf course in the middle of a building site. The successful delivery of Neom and other “gigaprojects” are central to Bin Salman’s dream of a new Saudi Arabia. It is also potentially a grand folly, and one that will certainly not come cheap.

As for the sport, success is not assured there either. The Saudis aren’t short on statistics for their aspirations here and this is particularly true of football. There are targets to become a top-10 footballing nation and a top-five professional league. But other numbers, related to the newly revamped Saudi Pro League, show an average of just 8,500 spectators at matches, fewer than Swindon Town are getting in League Two.

Equally the financial lure of the competition revealed its limits when Liverpool saw fit to say no to $215m for Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappé turned the Pro League down flat. Opinions as to the success or otherwise of Saudi’s LIV Golf project vary, meanwhile, but a proposed merger with PGA golf – decried as a hostile Saudi takeover – may yet be held up by US authorities.

Bin Salman’s bluff dismissal of sportswashing reflected his self-confidence, something born both of privilege and the real and growing power he has in the world. It was also perhaps a mistake. A moment revealing of his inexperience as a leader, it was a quip Bin Salman didn’t need to make and something that those sceptical of Saudi Arabia’s global ambitions will surely remember.