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Sensemaker: Golf washing

Sensemaker: Golf washing

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Donald Trump’s attorney general repeatedly told him his claims of electoral fraud in 2020 were “bullshit”, according to a US congressional committee.
  • Two British citizens and a Moroccan who fought for years in Ukraine’s armed forces were sentenced to death as mercenaries by a court in Russian-held Donetsk.
  • Ikea Norway said it wanted to help couples choose baby names based on those it uses for flat-packed furniture.  

Golf washing

“We’re golfers, not politicians,” says Graeme McDowell, the former US Open winner.

“This is my job. I do it for money,” says Lee Westwood, European golfer of the year for four years including 2020.

For most of the 1970s and ‘80s the world punished South Africa for its racial apartheid with a sports boycott that prevented its teams and stars taking part in top-flight international competition. For most of the past century Saudi Arabia has enforced a form of gender apartheid of sometimes extreme severity on half its population. Much of that remains in place. It also holds public executions, jails and disappears political dissidents and has murdered and dismembered one noted regime critic.

Yet rather than boycott Saudi Arabia the sports world is embracing it.

  • Newcastle FC has accepted a Saudi-backed $400 million takeover.
  • Formula 1 has accepted $600 million to stage a race in Jeddah.
  • And now golf has accepted $2 billion from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country’s main sovereign wealth fund, to stage a rival to the PGA and European tours worth $25 million per tournament.

The first LIV Golf tournament is happening this weekend. 

Yesterday the PGA tour suspended all 17 of its players who are taking part. 

In fairness…

  • The tournament is not taking place in Saudi Arabia, but at the Centurion course near Hemel Hempstead, north of London.
  • Reforms enacted in the past five years have begun to lift the burden of male guardianship laws that used to constrain every aspect of Saudi women’s lives, and they have been allowed to drive.

But discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia is still systemic. As Human Rights Watch’s World Report for 2022 notes, women still need a male guardian’s permission to get married. They face discrimination “in relation to family, divorce and decisions relating to children, including child custody,” and can be sued by male guardians for “disobedience”.

Despite this the LIV tournament is going ahead with the participation of 48 of the world’s top golfers and almost no mention of women’s rights. Human rights more broadly have been discussed in the build-up to yesterday’s PGA Tour suspensions, but

  • the only specific crime mentioned by critics or players in that discussion has been the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a government-backed Saudi hit squad in Istanbul;
  • and the conduit for the Saudi money now pouring into the sport, Yasir Al Rumayyan of the PIF, has barely been confronted on his country’s record. Asked about “sportswashing”, he told the BBC’s Dan Roan he’d look it up, and left to play golf.

Of the Khashoggi murder, Greg Norman, who is the public face of the LIV tour, has said: “Look, we all make mistakes”.

Who’s in: besides McDowell and Westwood, players signed up to the Saudi-backed tour include Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson (the highest-ranked player at 15), Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia. Mickelson, winner of six major PGA championships, seemed opposed in February, when he noted Saudi Arabia’s “horrible human rights record” and asked why he would even consider the LIV offer, but has since come around to it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. With career earnings to date of around $300 million, he will reportedly earn another $200 million for taking part.

Who’s out: Most of the world’s highest-ranked players including Rory McIlroy and the current world no. 1, Scott Scheffler. Tiger Woods, still recovering from injury, has also turned LIV down despite what Norman said was a “high nine-figure” offer.

To note: rights groups say discrimination against women is even more severe in Qatar than Saudi Arabia. The world will descend on Doha in November even so for the World Cup.


It’s not just the government that’s in crisis

Matthew d’Ancona

“England is the mother of parliaments”: so the radical reformer, John Bright, famously said in a speech in Birmingham in 1865. What would he make of the state of parliament today? Bright would conclude, I reckon, that England – or, more accurately, the United Kingdom – had been a particularly neglectful parent.


Money costs
Last year a noted UK think tank urged Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, to protect the Treasury against the risk of rising interest rates by converting nearly £1 trillion worth of government debt into long-term, low-yield bonds. He didn’t, and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research reckons that has cost the taxpayer £11 billion as rates duly rise. The Treasury’s response, when asked about this by the FT, was to claim it has a “clear financing strategy to meet the government’s funding needs” and to note that the Bank of England is independent. The trouble for Sunak is that he’s repeatedly used warnings about the rising debt service costs as a reason to prioritise the health of the public finances over investment. He gave himself one job, you might say if you were feeling uncharitable, and botched it. 


Turkey’s name
Turkey’s campaign to rebrand itself with a more authentically Turkish spelling and pronunciation of its name is gathering steam. In January it launched a promotional campaign for Turkish tourism under the banner “Hello Türkiye”. Last week it asked the UN to adopt the new spelling, which the world body did at once. Now it’s making the same request of individual countries, and they will require clarity on pronunciation. The AP’s phonetic rendition is “Tur-key-YAY”. The FT’s is “tooh-key-eh”, which is fundamentally different and less helpful in that it offers no guidance on which syllable to stress. A free Tortoise membership is hereby offered to the Turkish embassy in London in return for authoritative arbitration.


Facebook switcheroo
If Mark Zuckerberg was ever in love with news, he may be falling out of it. He’s moved his former head of news to a new role overseeing media partnerships but also sports and entertainment tie-ups, and he’s conspicuously failed – so far – to renew a set of three-year deals with big US news publishers to compensate them for putting their stories on his site. The WSJ says the deals were worth more than $20 million a year to the NYT and Dow Jones (of which the Journal is a part) and more than $15 million to the Washington Post. Smaller sums were paid to smaller outlets that will miss the extra revenue sorely if indeed Zuckerberg has decided to cut it off. The Journal is especially attuned to this story because News Corp, of which Dow Jones is a part, led a long fight with Facebook and other platforms to stop them using its material for free. America’s big papers will survive, but 1,800 smaller ones have closed since 2004.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

730 more dead
730 Americans have been killed with a gun since 19 children and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde two weeks ago. 22 of those 730 were children, 66 were teenagers. There have already been 248 mass shootings – when at least four people, not including the shooter, are killed or injured – so far this year. The numbers are stark, but not stark enough to move the dial in Congress. Republican Senators have insisted on maintaining current gun access despite Democrats’ best efforts. Matthew McConaughey, who grew up in Uvalde, told the White House in an emotional plea “we want gun laws that won’t make it so easy for the bad guys to get the damn guns”. But you don’t need Hollywood to ramp up the horror of what is happening in US schools and almost every state. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Life off earth?
Japanese scientists analysing a tiny quantity of rock and dust brought back from an asteroid 300 million kilometres from Earth say it contains some of the building blocks of life. They say the 5.4 grams of material brought back from 16213 Ryugu, visited by Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe in 2020, contains “amino acids and other organic matter that could give clues to the origin of life on Earth”. Crucially, Ryugu has never been exposed to Earth’s biosphere, so this organic matter must have come from outer space or at least from elsewhere in the solar system. This doesn’t necessarily mean life on Earth was seeded from space – there are solid theories about how it could have evolved from nothing but salt water crashing against rocks, struck occasionally by lightning – but it does make the idea harder to rule out.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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