In 1989, I published a book about the Middle East, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” and after it came out my editor, Jonathan Galassi, asked me what my next book would be about. I told him that I wanted to write a book about golf. He looked at me quizzically and asked, “The Persian Gulf?” “No,” I said. “Golf. Golf.”
I say this to establish the fact that I have two passions in life: the Middle East and golf. I was a member at the Beirut Golf and Country Club in 1982 — the only course where you were happy to be in a bunker. I caddied in the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine for Chi Chi Rodriguez. I once caddied with my pal Neil Oxman for Tom Watson and Andy North in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf senior tournament, and although I drove over Andy’s ball in a practice round with our cart, we’re still friends.
I know golf, and I know the Gulf. I know the PGA, and I know MBS, which is why I am writing today about the controversy enveloping professional golf: the creation of a breakaway tour fronted by Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson and funded by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.
The new tour is called the LIV Golf International Series. It’s a classic case of idiotic “sportswashing” by the Saudis, with help from some soulless professional golfers. In my view, it is terrible for golf and even worse for the Saudis. It is only drawing attention to what the Saudis are trying to get people to forget — the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — rather than what they want people to embrace — Saudi Arabia as a future sports and entertainment mecca.
If I had a chance to speak directly to MBS, here is what I would tell him:
Mohammed, you get only one chance to make a second impression, and you’re squandering it by getting into bed with these rebels, some of them among the least likable members of the PGA Tour. But I’m not going to focus on those golfers today. I want to focus on Saudi Arabia.
Your government’s responsibility for the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post, is a permanent stain that will never go away. It was an unspeakable act of cruelty for a moderate regime critic.
But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you ever can do to alter how the world sees your country. What you can still do is keep on pushing Saudi society, its religious education system and laws and its labor markets down the paths of reform. That would be a huge contribution to your own country and to the entire Arab-Muslim world.
The truth is, Mohammed, you have been responsible for the most radical social and religious reforms in Saudi Arabia’s modern history — liberating women to drive, easing the male guardianship system that required women to get permission from men for a variety of work and travel activities, curtailing the role of the religious police, permitting rock concerts, and allowing women to attend soccer games and young boys and girls to mix normally.
These reforms were long overdue and are still insufficient. But none of your predecessors dared to attempt them, and the changes have been enormously popular, particularly with young women.
When I visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, something a 30-year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur said to me about your reforms stuck in my ear: “We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before and the after.” Her mother, she said, will never know what it is to drive a car. Her daughter will never be able to imagine a day when a woman couldn’t drive. “But I will always remember not being able to drive,” she told me.
My friend Dina Amer, an Egyptian American filmmaker, showed her amazing new movie, “You Resemble Me” — about the Islamization and radicalization of a young French Moroccan woman who died with one of the ringleaders of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris — at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah in December. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival. But it had its Middle East premiere in Saudi Arabia, despite being about a very nuanced and sensitive subject.
“I have to say, though, that the quality and ambition of the Saudi film festival was on a par with the best in the world,” Dina told me. “To see so many Saudi filmmakers start to be able to tell their stories was impressive and left me with a lot of hope.” I was struck when Dina remarked that her film was banned in Egypt but won the audience award in Saudi Arabia.
As Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, and someone who writes about Saudi Arabia by actually going there, noted in a recent essay, “Saudi Arabia’s crown prince may be odious,” but “there are important changes in Saudi Arabia that critics often too easily and breezily dismiss.”
That brings me back to the LIV Golf series. Mohammed, whoever told you that sponsoring a golf tour to break up the PGA Tour — by throwing ungodly sums of money at mostly end-of-their-career golfers and total unknowns — should be fired.
It is no easy trick to spend a billion dollars to improve your image and end up with only bad publicity — but your golf tour has done it. Instead of the news pages talking about all the religious and social reforms in Saudi Arabia, the sports pages are now talking about your regime’s murder of Khashoggi and the involvement of Saudi jihadis in 9/11.
There’s a reason the most respected tour players, like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods, won’t join your series. They know sportswashing when they see it.
So here is the best golf tip, and Gulf tip, I can give you: There is only one way to get the world to look at Saudi Arabia in a more balanced way — and it would not cost you a penny.
Give visas to any journalist or film crew who wants to come to Saudi Arabia. Tell them they are free to go anywhere in the kingdom and interview any Saudi they want. Not every story will be peaches and cream. You will read complaints about the lack of political participation. The absence of a free press. The brutal arrests of dissidents and various ugly and ongoing human rights abuses. It is all there and all real. But you will also see honest journalists bearing witness to the vast economic, religious and social changes your government has set in motion.
It’s the most you can hope for. But it would be a whole lot better than wasting billions buying golf professionals who don’t know a thing about your country, who privately say they despise you and your culture and who have no credibility as witnesses for the gains made there. Every time they open their mouths to explain — with obvious embarrassment — why they are taking your piles of cash, it does grievous harm to every young Saudi striving for, and benefiting from, change in the kingdom.
Your worst enemies in Iran could not have designed a dumber strategy for getting the world to give the kingdom a deeper look.
Mohammed, you need to shut this LIV thing down. Write it off. The only ambassadors of any value to you are your own young people ready to tell independent journalists that the reforms you have unleashed are deeply meaningful for their lives and their region and, though still too small, are vital steps in the right direction. Every day the LIV tour lives will be another day of distraction from that reality.