Mohammed bin Salman vows to keep ‘sportswashing’ if it increases Saudi Arabia’s GDP by 1 per cent

Newcastle United supporters dressed in robes pose with 'sold' placards as they celebrate the sale of the club to a Saudi-led consortium

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has admitted for the first time that he has been “sportswashing” its image and “will continue doing so” by investing in the likes of Newcastle United, LIV Golf and bringing Cristiano Ronaldo to the country.

In a stunning admission, Mohammed bin Salman, the Gulf state’s de-facto leader, declared he would “continue doing sportswashing” due to its impact on the economy there and did not care what others thought of that.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of investing hundreds of millions of pounds in sport to distract attention from human rights violations committed by the country. They include the execution of 81 men in a single day last year, women’s rights abuses, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the restriction of free speech, and its role in the war in Yemen.

Bin Salman was also implicated personally in the brutal 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, although the crown prince has denied any involvement.

“If sportswashing increases my GDP by one per cent then I will continue doing sportswashing,” he told Fox News.

Mohammed bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman has been remarkably frank about how Saudi Arabia uses sports - Reuters/Saudi Royal Court

Asked if he was “okay” with a term coined by critics of such activity, he replied: “I don’t care. I have one per cent growth GDP from sport and I’m aiming for another one-and-a-half per cent – call it whatever you want. We’re going to get that one-and-a-half per cent.”

Bin Salman currently chairs his country’s Public Investment Fund, which last year led a takeover of Newcastle and launched LIV Golf. PIF has also taken control of four of Saudi Arabia’s top clubs – Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr - which have recently secured high-profile signings including Ronaldo and reigning Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema.

Bin Salman’s apparent admission of personal involvement in sportswashing raises further questions about the Newcastle takeover, which was only approved by the Premier League after PIF provided “legally-binding assurances” that the Saudi state would have no involvement in the running of the club.

The launch of LIV Golf also sparked civil war in the latter sport, which is controversially set to end with a merger between the rebel tour and the PGA.

Phil Mickelson playing in front of a sign for the LIV Golf Invitational Series
Phil Mickelson has been a figurehead for the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series - PA/Steven Paston

Hailing the proposed deal, Bin Salman said: “That’s a game changer for the golf industry. You will not have competition and you will have focus on developing the game, and that’s good for the players and the fans who love golf.”

In addition to its investment in football and golf, Saudi Arabia has hosted an increasing number of major sporting events in recent years. It will stage Fifa’s Club World Cup in December for the first time and is expected to launch a bid for the World Cup itself either in 2030 or 2034.

It has now become a permanent fixture on the Formula 1 calendar, a go-to destination for some of the biggest world title fights in boxing, while it has recently secured a foothold in men’s tennis. However, a major backlash against proposals for it to stage the Women’s Tennis Association’s end-of-season WTA Finals saw it overlooked in favour of Cancun, Mexico.

The Premier League declined to comment on Bin Salman’s remarks.

In March, its chief executive, Richard Masters, told MPs he was unable to disclose whether it was investigating who had control of Newcastle and if it was re-examining its approval of the club’s takeover.

It followed the publication of documents in a US court case in which the PIF was described as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” PIF Governor and Newcastle chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan as “a sitting minister of the government” with “sovereign immunity”.

Record spending in the Saudi Pro League over the summer is being monitored closely by the Premier League, which set aside an unexpected agenda slot on the emerging league at its shareholders meeting with the 20 member clubs.

A source with knowledge of the meeting said the English top tier detailed the recent Saudi window, with  £239million spent on English-based talent alone. However, the Premier League is still spending significantly more than Saudi.

On EFL talent alone, clubs spent £331m this year. Overall, clubs spent a collective £2.351 billion but received £1.297bn in sales for a net spend of £1.055bn, a lower figure than summer 2022.

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Priority Campaigns and Individuals at Risk, said: “Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of high-profile sports businesses like Newcastle United or the PGA Tour are as much about sportswashing the country’s appalling human rights record as they are about adding one or two per cent to national GDP.

“The huge amounts of Saudi money currently sluicing through football and other sports are creating most of the headlines, but behind the drama of these transactions the Saudi authorities are busily cracking down on human rights.

“Not caring about the sportswashing label is one thing, but Mohammed bin Salman also doesn’t seem to care about the peaceful activists languishing behind bars in Saudi Arabia, the 196 people executed in the country last year, or the personal pain of the family of Jamal Khashoggi who are still desperately hoping to see justice done in his case.

“Mohammed bin Salman’s rule has been a truly dark time for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and no amount of talk about economic visions or of an expansion into new sporting ventures should be allowed to distract from that fact.”