During whatever passes for his quiet moments these days, Jay Monahan must yearn for the time when his news consumption was principally focused on the sports and business pages, those being the areas most consequential to his remit as commissioner of the PGA Tour. Nowadays, he must also turn to international affairs, one assumes with a knot in his gut at what might await.
This week, one dispatch was downright ulcerative.
A lawsuit accused the Tour’s soon-to-be partner, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, of taking part in a malicious campaign to punish a dissident defector whose children have been imprisoned for four years without due process. Allegations leveled in lawsuits are often hyperbolic, of course. Many colorful claims evaporate when oaths are administered or are dismissed with something approximating derision by a court, at least in the case of one chap who seems to think that both jurisprudence and the rules of golf are matters of personal interpretation.
On paper, Al-Rumayyan’s latest entanglement could be viewed as a squabble between stooges for a despotic government. His accuser is Dr Saad Aljabri, the former chief of Saudi intelligence. Aljabri claims that companies under Al-Rumayyan’s control have been used to apply pressure on his family, and it’s not the first time an asset in the PIF portfolio has been implicated in nefarious activity. A charter jet company seized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and transferred to Al-Rumayyan’s fund was later alleged to have been used in the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. There has been no suggestion that Al-Rumayyan was involved in that gruesome act, but there’s still reason for his business associates to be apprehensive.
Al-Rumayyan enjoys a reputation as a sophisticated, savvy dealmaker (his bankrolling of Greg Norman’s ego notwithstanding) but he’s like everyone else in Saudi Arabia’s state apparatus: a factotum for MBS. These are not people likely to demur if called upon to act on a matter close to the Crown Prince’s heart. There’s evidence of what MBS has been known to ask of loyalists — particularly those who have demonstrated proficiency with a bonesaw — so anyone who is in business with the Saudi fund can’t delay scanning the international news section until after they’re done with the funnies.
Whatever troublesome relationships the Tour has encountered in the past — say, a sponsoring bank that defrauds customers (Wells Fargo) or an occasional Ponzi schemer (Allen Stanford) — the wrongdoing wasn’t known in advance of contracts being signed. No blissful ignorance defense exists when it comes to the sovereign wealth fund of a government with a lousy human rights record. Nor does this situation mirror Saudi involvement in other sports, like F1 or cricket. There’s an enormous difference between sponsorship and ownership, and if agreement is reached with PIF, the U.S. and European tours — and the private investors of Strategic Sports Group — risk having to ‘own’ more than mere equity. Harvard Business School can’t teach one how to predict the perils of a direct relationship with an autocratic regime headed by a capricious prince who doesn’t take well to criticism. But then, it shouldn’t have to.
A blueprint exists in how to handle proximity to abuses, though. It has been furnished by the LIV golfers who slavishly refer to Al-Rumayyan as His Excellency, often shortened to “H.E.” in a hollow attempt to suggest familiarity that elevates them above serf status. The strategy is to brazen it out, prevaricate if questioned, insist the association is strictly commercial, and repeatedly point to other entities that also take Saudi investment. It works. The past few years have proven that revenue is exculpatory in the minds of many, based on the wretched assumption that everyone would overlook cruelties for cash if presented the option.
If a day arrives when Monahan is forced to explain his organization’s adjacency to another Saudi outrage, it shouldn’t be overlooked that this partnership wasn’t brought about by the imperial ambitions of executives in Ponte Vedra or Wentworth. It’s happening because the best players in the world feel entitled to compensation beyond their worth in any rational market. By presenting a ransom demand that only the Saudis will pay, golfers on the PGA Tour are forcing a deal that absolves them of individual decision-making responsibility. And if there’s a reputational price to be paid for that later, well, it’s like bad yardages or swing slumps. Someone else will take the fall.