Sports is riddled with politics and politics is essentially a sport only with power as the prize. But rarely do the two domains dovetail as neatly as recently following power plays by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The world’s most powerful politician, President Joe Biden, and golf superstar Phil Mickelson, are each beholden to His Royal Highness despite the fact that both called out Saudi’s human rights abuses and its gruesome dismemberment murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This week Biden is to announce a meeting with the Crown Prince in an attempt to get pump prices below $5 a gallon while last week Mickelson headlined the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf Invitational Tour in competition with America’s PGA golf tour.
In 2019, Biden vowed, as a candidate, to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its atrocities, but his recent phone calls to get support for the alliance against Russia’s war were not returned by the Prince. The Royal snub was a problem because $5-a-gallon gasoline threatens Biden’s Presidency, the economy, and Democratic Party in the upcoming mid-term elections.The United States needs Saudi Arabia to open its oil taps to lower the world price of oil as well as to replace Russian oil embargoed by Europe. It also needs Saudi Arabia as a close ally against Iran whose nuclear deal is about to unravel.
Clearly, the Prince outplayed Biden by refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine then by placing $2 billion in a new, untested investment fund started by former US president Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. (See my recent piece “Jared’s Billions”.) The Saudi leader also gave the nod to the new golf tour gambit financed by his country’s investment fund, which is stealing the PGA’s top roster and scheduling two of its eight venues at Trump-owned golf courses. The final, most lucrative, event will take place on Trump’s struggling Doral course in Miami.
Put another way, the Crown Prince is playing hardball, not golf, and buying his way into the center of the geopolitical and sports worlds. This is not difficult. Politicians are always for sale, notably in the US, even if squeaky clean and the political proposition is simple: the Saudis want Washington’s respect as well as its ongoing military and political support in the Gulf Region on behalf of the alliance of “moderate” Arab regimes who fear a nuclear-powered Iran, backed by Russia. In return, Biden wants $3-a-gallon prices at the gas pumps, preferably before the mid-terms, a goal which is achievable only if Saudi Arabia and its Gulf OPEC allies flood the market in order to bring down world prices which have jumped due to sanctions imposed on Russia because of its war against Ukraine.
Another incentive behind Biden’s U-turn is that there’s a new superpower rival on the scene. China’s President Xi Jinping is making a rare visit to Riyadh soon. Beijing has invested billions in Belt and Road Initiatives in Saudi Arabia and hopes to secure more oil imports. This raises a few thorny challenges for Washington. More oil to China impedes Europe’s goal to replace 7 million barrels per day of Russian oil and other liquid exports. Worse, Beijing hopes to pay for oil in yuan rather than dollars as part of a strategy to undermine America’s economic and trade power, based in large measure on the fact that the U.S. dollar is currently the world’s reserve currency. Finally, there are rumours that China is helping Saudi Arabia develop nuclear technology.
White House advance teams have already reached tentative agreements with the Saudis before the Biden-Prince summit. So far, so good. The Saudi-led OPEC announced a large oil production increase to help Europe and lower soaring prices worldwide and Saudi Arabia has extended a truce in their war in Yemen. The goal is to retain Saudi Arabia as a key partner with the U.S. and Israel to ensure regional stability.
But sports also makes strange bedfellows. Mickelson no sooner inked a $200-million deal with the Saudi investment fund, than he made nasty comments that were far more damaging than Biden’s “pariah” reference. “They’re scary mother@#$%^! to get involved with,” said Mickelson to a sports website called The Firepit Collective. “They killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people there for being gay. Knowing all this, why am I even thinking about it? Because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour works. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse… And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage.”
Mickelson later apologized and had to, but Biden plays the geopolitical game by ignoring previous insults, cutting checks, and making deals with the world’s rising regional powers who increasingly play America off against Russia or China. These countries increasingly use “sports washing” to burnish their reputations: Examples include the LIV Golf gambit, Russian oligarchs buying valuable sports franchises, sheikhs sponsoring Formula 1 racing and World Cup Soccer and India’s aggressive capture from under Britain and Australia the enormous global audience for professional cricket. Most of these ventures have no viable business model but don’t need one. They are about national re-branding, vanity, scoring geopolitical points or punishing foes.
As the future King of Saudi Arabia demonstrates, money talks and oil walks. His status will rise after his summit with Biden and he’s also been able to change the subject through sports. As a golf commentator noted: “The PGA may be thinking that there’s going to be an initial backlash [against the Saudi tour] but people will move on … Instead of talking about Khashoggi, they will be talking about golf.”
NOTE: Hit the Share button to send this to social media, but those who wish to email this newsletter to others can do so by forwarding it to another email or, if that doesn’t work, by copying it and pasting it onto another email then sending it in order to avoid the paywall.
"a goal which is achievable only if Saudi Arabia and its Gulf OPEC allies flood the market in order to bring down world prices which have jumped due to sanctions imposed on Russia".. True if one were to ignore the fact that Biden has throttled US fuel production as he promised during his campaign. Oil production is down 10% but the shortfall is far less considering increased demand since the shut down. The US under Trump produced so much gas that we became the leading exporter, making deals in Europe to switch them from Russian fuel to American fuel. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-poland-usa-energy-idUSKCN1VL0HH
A most critical time is upon us. Much of the World[but not all] has made climate change our number one enemy/priority. However, our consumer driven economies rely on Energy and Water. Russian petroleum products still transit across Ukraine, even though Russia is attempting to steal sovereign territory from Ukraine. Some countries are still buying that product. The U.S. government blocks the Keystone pipeline, restricting Canadian Petroleum product from reaching American refineries. Getting new pipelines constructed in Canada is no easier, all he while the reality is both our nations require more energy. Therefore, it is not whether we need the Oil, simply where are we going to acquire it, and who is making all the money making that happen. Unless we modify/reduce our consumer based economies, I don't see much changing. No one Political Leader or party is capable of fixing this all on their own. It is up to us. Around 1955-65, even as kids, we knew what family had just become a 2 car family. A sign of status. Soon after, being able to get your meal served in less than a minute became the norm. It is what we built, and now, those who control the energy run too many things. Out of balance. Wait until there are numerous conflicts over water. We buy water in plastic bottles, instead of drinking from fountains. We water lawns. We fill swimming pools. We are better educated, but maybe not using that knowledge to always make wiser decisions. People like Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman know this...