LIV Golf — Saudi Arabia’s bid to sportswash its notorious human rights record and Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine — the link

Eight of the Eighty One executed on the same day in Saudi Arabia in March none of whom according to Human Rights Watch got a fair trial: Top (left to right) Hussain Ahmed Al-Ojami, Ahmed Abdel Wahid Al-Suwaiket, Amjad Mohammed Al-Awami and Jamal Hassan Al-Ban’nawi. Bottow (left to right): Mohsen Ibrahim Al-Masb’bah, Mohammed Al-Faraj,Jaafar Al-Mabiuq and Haitham Ibrahim ِAl-Mukhtar. Credit: Twitter.

Lee Westwood one of the world’s best known professional golfers who joined LIV Golf Saudi Arabia’s bid to sportswash its notorious human rights record revealed a link between that tour and Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine by refusing to answer a simple question! What if Putin sponsored a golf tour to sportswash Russia’s bloody crimes against the Ukrainian people would he participate in such a tour as well? At a press conference to mark LIV Golf’s first tournament he would not answer but the embarrassed way he turned away passing the ball so speak to Ian Poulter another leading LIV Golf professional who also refused to answer saying he did not comment on “speculation!”

Remarkably revealing that inspite of the egregious human rights abuses being committed by Russia they refused to say if they would participate in a Putin sponsored golf tournament because of their involvement in Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf tour! A classic example of how sportswashing lowers the bar of what is acceptable and contributes directly into normalising some of the worst human rights abuses of our time? This is all the more unbelievable when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Even more chilling last March 81 men were executed by the Saudis on the same day with Human Rights Watch releasing a report showing none got a fair trial — all of which is only the tip of the iceberg of horror perpetrated by the monarchy now run by Crown Prince MBS against his own people.

Ironically the most high profile golfer to join the Liv Golf Tour Phil Mickelson made the strongest case for not doing so in February rejecting any idea then — unlike now! — of working with the Saudis: “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this why would I even consider it?”

“Why would I even consider it?”

Many others faced a similar question regarding Russia and dealing with Vladimir Putin in particular after his years mercilessly slaughtering civilians in Syria with Assad and following the real start of the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2014. But Syria in particular has had horrific consequences for Ukraine because of the systematic way in which his forces are repeating the same atrocities they committed with the Assad regime. That only serves to underline the link between not even attempting to stop human rights abuses in one country leading the same perpetrator, in this case Putin, to go on to commit the same atrocities again and again. Indeed, quite chilling to see recently the Russian leader also appoint General Alexander Dvornikov his supreme commander in Ukraine after he earned the title “the Butcher of Syria” for the brutal way in which he annihilated civilians especially in taking Aleppo.

The link between failing to try to make human rights abusers accountable and their going on to commit the same and even worse crimes is not lost on anyone as we found quite spontaneously at screenings of our feature documentary Bringing Assad To Justice which deals with the heroic efforts of Syrians and others to make the Assad regime accountable for some of the most egregious crimes since the Holocaust. From Copenhagen to Istanbul and Washington DC to London at every Question & Answer session we have participated in after screenings of that film the link between Syria and Ukraine, with the latter not featuring in anyway in the documentary, seemed very clear to everyone! The conclusion most drew unprompted was that if there had there been any attempt to make Russia accountable for the many alleged warcrimes and crimes against humanity against civilians in Syria, including the systematic bombing of hospitals, these egregious atrocities might not now continue to be repeated in Ukraine.

Although it does seem like common sense if you protest human rights abuses and deny egregious tyrants like Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman the chance to sports wash his crimes including the brutal murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi you can help end these horrific atrocities. Even Phil Mickelson made that case unwittingly in very blunt terms above before changing his mind when the money apparently offered increased.

But in fairness to these golfers they can only get away with selling their very souls to the highest bidder if we allow them to do so by watching, sponsoring and attending the events to which they have signed up. In the same way that war criminals will go on committing war crimes and crimes against humanity unless we make real efforts to make them accountable. The Syrian people have paid a very high price for our failure in 2011 when Bashar al-Assad in Syria began mercilessly mowing down peaceful protesters in the streets and disappearing tens of thousands into his torture prisons in not taking action to make him accountable. The failure of the international community to act as he adopted a brutal military response to crush the peaceful uprising sent a clear message to all dictators that while the EU and the US in particular talk about human rights they take no meaningful action. And that extends to President Barack Obama who even failed to act on his now infamous Red Line when the Assad regime launched a massive chemical attack killing more than 1,500 civilians in 2013 and since then there have been almost 350 documented chemical attacks in Syria and almost all of them by the regime against civilians.

Ukraine is now paying a terrible price for the failure not only to make Assad but also Vladimir Putin accountable for his forces multiple war crimes when he intervened in Syria in September, 2015 to save his regime.

But how is LIV Golf connected to this mass slaughter by Putin in Ukraine and in Syria with Assad some may still be asking? Sports washing is the flip side of impunity — the failure to make war criminals accountable for their mass torture, disappearance and slaughter of civilians. Normalising egregious human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia by participating in a golf tournament designed to seek to make respectable a regime actively engaged in mass repression lowers the bar of opposition to human rights abuses everywhere. The golfers themselves who have signed up are de facto apologists for these abuses and if we accept that we too are complicit.




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Ronan Tynan

Filmmaker & cofounder Esperanza Productions ( & latest award winning documentary is Bringing Assad To Justice — see here