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July 31, 2022 — A short lesson in “sportswashing”

Today, the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix had a title sponsor of Aramco, the company which is responsible for oil drilling in large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In France today, the Paris-St. Germain soccer team beat Nantes, 4-0 in the annual Champions Trophy, all while wearing their new jersey sponsor, Qatar Airways.

In Bedminster, N.J., the third tournament in the new LIV Golf Tour, a tour fully backed by the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finished off its final round.

These, and other sports-related investments of recent vintage, add up to what some call “sportswashing,” which, loosely defined, means trying to use sponsorships for public-relations purposes to counter criticisms of the regimes behind several petroauthoritarian states.

I’ve talked about some of this kind of “sportswashing” before, whether it was the ownership of the Brooklyn Nets or Chelsea Football Club. Many of the oligarchs who have bought into these teams have had to make a 100 percent turnaround because of European sanctions which have come into being after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But there have not been sanctions for the Middle Eastern sponsors of sport, even as withering criticism of their regimes has forced, for example, the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Bahrain in 2011, only to see it reinstated a year later.

But “sportswashing” has been around a lot longer than many of you may realize. If you watched network television in the weeks before the 1994 FIFA World Cup, you may have seen commercials extolling the fact that the Saudi Arabia men’s soccer team had qualified for the first World Cup to be held in the United States.

Little was said that women in Saudi Arabia did not have their own team. In fact, women in the kingdom did not have a number of civil rights and privileges’ that many of us take for granted. Women could not, until June of 2018, drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Strict interpretations of religious laws restricted when women could leave their homes, or limited the amount of higher education women could have.

As much as the criticism of the LIV golf tour has beleaguered the organizers, to the point where tickets for this weekend’s final rounds were going for $7, there is one major sportswashing event set for later this year. In November, the FIFA World Cup is being held in Qatar, an oil emirate which, it is alleged, has used indentured labor to build its stadiums while its top oil class lives in incredible luxury.

The lavish new construction in Qatar over the last 20 years has been featured as a centerpiece as the emirate has tried to become a center of sport. There was a cycling tour that ran for a few years but was cancelled in 2017 because of a lack of sponsor and a lack of challenging elevation: there were no attractive mountains for the climbers.

Which is surprising, given the fact that oil dollars have built enormous office buildings as well as artificial islands which, not surprisingly, have undergone some troubles because of the 2008 global financial crisis and global climate change.

We’ll see, in the next few years, whether the dollars behind sportswashing campaigns have a return on their investment — or if the oil money will last.

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