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Saudi Arabia is using sports to reform its image on the world stage


Sports are having a moment in Saudi Arabia - a big, expensive moment. From golf to tennis and now soccer, Saudis are spending heavily on athletes, teams, international competitions, often with money tied directly to the ruling royal family. Lionel Messi, the Argentine forward who led his country to a World Cup last fall, could end up on a Saudi team, several Spanish media outlets reported this week. He's been offered - get set for this - $300 million a year to play in Saudi Arabia, would make him the world's highest paid athlete by far. Why would a country that has never won an Olympic gold medal spend so much on sports? We're going to bring in Jon Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated. And he recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to report this story for CBS's "60 Minutes."

Jon, thanks so much for being with us.

JON WERTHEIM: Pleasure, Scott. Always a pleasure.

SIMON: New golf tour, top-tier tennis competition, now showering money on soccer stars - why are Saudi rulers spending so much money on sports, do you think?

WERTHEIM: They will tell you, and they told me, this is done as a way to inspire the youth of Saudi Arabia. This is a way to bring attention to the kingdom. This is a way to get kids to play sports. And I think there's a more cynical explanation others might have, which is that this is soft power. This is the - sportswashing is the voguish term - but this is a way to use sports to paper over some pretty dubious human rights records.

SIMON: You spoke with the Saudi minister for sport.

WERTHEIM: We did, for quite a bit of time.

SIMON: And he he told you what? Notice how I don't have to guess that it's a he or a she.

WERTHEIM: Well, that's part of the issue. It is indeed a he. And, yeah, I mean, he stuck to the party line, which is essentially, we are using sports to inspire the youth of the kingdom, and this is a way to attract tourists. They were very quick to add this is not just professional sports, but, you know, the winners of the Saudi game, the sort of national competition, were getting $250,000. So if you're the top pingpong player in Saudi Arabia or, you know, the top kayaker - you get a quarter of a million dollars. So they were very keen on sort of explaining that this is top to bottom, and it's grassroots as well as professional golf and tennis and and soccer.

SIMON: Is all the money being offered from the Saudi royal family?

WERTHEIM: Essentially. This is all from the private investment fund, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. And it's chosen to turn on the fire hose and funnel this money into, you know, glamorous entertainment and sports and Formula One and golf. This is not the local billionaire owning the local sports team. This is essentially national wealth that right now is being funneled into sports.

SIMON: Do they expect a return on that investment in professional sports or is - not the kind of - not a strict monetary return?

WERTHEIM: It's a great question. I think that really goes to to the heart of the issue, 'cause in the United States and most of the world, sports return is like any other investment. It's, you know, selling enough in media rights and enough in sponsorships and tickets so that, you know, you turn a little profit. We saw very few fans in the stands. It's possible Lionel Messi will play in front of some of the smallest crowds of his career, if and when he plays in Saudi Arabia. It doesn't matter. It's this not traditional sports economics, which is why this is such a story to watch.

SIMON: I gather you spoke to the kingdom's first female boxing coach, too.

WERTHEIM: We did. And I think part of this is that under MBS - under Mohammed bin Salman - he stated that sort of having a more liberalized society is a goal, a more open society. Sports are a way to do that. But as we all know, women were not allowed to drive until a few years ago. There was no freedom of movement. They weren't allowed to get passports without male consent. And now in just a few years, this change, the social change, is really celebrated. You can see it expressed in sports. And, yeah, I mean, we talked to a female boxing coach, and she said, listen, the idea that there would be female boxing, much less an infrastructure where you would have coaching and leagues and competition, you got to realize how jarring a transition, a transformation this is.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what issues this brings up for the rest of the world, 'cause as you note, this is a country that stands credibly accused of human rights crimes. Do some of the athletes who've signed huge contracts - I'm thinking of golfers, perhaps Lionel Messi - have any doubts? Did they worry about fan reaction in countries where they want to sell jerseys and sports shoes?

WERTHEIM: Some athletes are rational actors, and whoever cuts the biggest check is going to get their services. Other athletes have real reservations, and I think athletes, more and more of them have a real choice to make. I think you could make a credible case things are heading in the right direction, but this is still a country that - you know, there's a freedom index and they rank 155 out of 165 countries. I mean, there're still some real issues of human rights and gender equality. Are you willing to play there in exchange for a very, very large check, or at some level, do morals matter? So some athletes have taken the Saudi money. Others haven't. But I think more and more athletes are going to be confronted with this choice.

SIMON: Jon Wertheim. Thanks so much for being with us.

WERTHEIM: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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