A first women’s golf tournament in Saudi Arabia, between a ‘historic moment’ and the instrumentalization of sport

Historic week for women’s golf. The European women’s circuit, the LET (Ladies European Tour) stops for the first time in Saudi Arabia. For a week, from November 12 to 19, two exclusively female sporting events will be linked to the Royal Greens Golf Club, near the city of Jeddah: a tournament reserved for 108 professionals from the circuit (the Aramco Saudi Ladies International) will be followed by a team competition (the Saudi Ladies Team International), mixing 36 amateurs with professionals. These two dates, originally scheduled for March but postponed with the coronavirus pandemic, will be the third and fourth professional golf tournaments in Saudi Arabia – the country hosting since 2019 a stage of the European Men’s Tour.

The Saudi Golf company will also take advantage of these two sporting events to launch a program to develop the practice of women’s golf at the national level, which will result in free golf lessons and a year of membership offered in one of the three clubs in the country. to the first 1000 registered.

This week of competition is touted in a press release as a “historic moment for women’s sport in the kingdom and a defining moment for young Saudi women” through Majed Al Sorour, at the head of the Saudi Golf Federation, which has “can’t wait to welcome these big names in women’s golf to a tournament that aims to become a major sporting event”. For her part, the director of LET, Alexandra Armas, is looking forward to “be part of history by bringing the first women’s golf tournament to Saudi Arabia”.

Sport, a diplomatic lever

If the kingdom is hosting for the first time an exclusively female golf tournament, it has increased the organization of major sporting events in recent years. These competitions include – among others – boxing and wrestling matches, the Dakar 2020 rally raid (as well as the next five editions) or the Spanish Supercup until 2022. In early November, the country also formalized the organization of a Grand Prix in 2021.

Investing in the world of sport is an axis of the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” project Mohammed ben salman, a plan to “to diversify the country’s economy and attract foreign investors and tourists”, Explain Raphael Le Magoariec, specialist in sports policies in the Gulf countries. “Through this strategy, the Saudi leaders wish to restore the image of the country. It is an operation of seduction of the kingdom, which uses the values ​​of sport to mask the social realities of Saudi Arabia, realities which are not necessarily positive in the eyes of the rest of the world “, continues the doctoral student at the University of Tours.

A strategy of “sport-washing” (or instrumentalization of sport) regularly denounced by certain activists. For Ines Osman, lawyer and founder of the NGO MENA Human Rights, the kingdom “uses sport to give itself the image of a modern country and to camouflage the catastrophic human rights situation”.

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F1: a Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia in 2021

A timid policy of opening up to women’s sport

If women have invested “the sporting world from the years 1960-70 in the region of Jeddah, a region historically more open to the outside and less conservative than Ryad”, Explain Raphael Le Magoariec, female sports practice remains limited throughout the kingdom. First participation of Saudi athletes at the London Olympics in 2012, sports lessons for girls in public schools since 2016 or the right obtained by women in 2018 to attend football matches in three enclosures in the country: progress has been made been carried out in recent years in Saudi Arabia. But this recent desire shown in favor of women’s sport nevertheless raises questions: “Will the momentum of the Saudi leadership at the national level really kick in on the ground or will it only stay at the communication stage?”asks the specialist in sports policies in the Gulf countries.

Communication is in any case a tool mastered by the organizers of the Aramco Saudi Ladies International. On social networks, the historical and innovative dimension of the two women’s tournaments is constantly highlighted by the hashtag #LadiesFirst (“ladies First”) and a series of inspiring Saudi women portraits “overcome obstacles to achieve their dreams”. A campaign “totally hypocritical in view of the dire situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia” according to the lawyer and human rights activist Ines Osman, which recalls the existence of a “male guardianship system which considerably limits the emancipation of Saudi women”. For example, until last year, women had to have permission from a male relative in order to travel.

Call for NGO boycott

Another major problem in the kingdom according to human rights defenders: the national campaign of repression against Saudi activists, carried out between May and July 2018. Five of them, who demanded obtaining the right to drive for women, are imprisoned for more than two years. “Holding exclusively female events in a country where the people who fight to improve the daily life of women are in prison, we can only call that hypocrisy”, deplores Ines Osman.

As director of MENA Human Rights Group, the Franco-Algerian lawyer has signed with eighteen other organizations fighting for the defense of human rights, an open letter calling on female players to reconsider their participation in Saudi tournaments and to urge the release of imprisoned feminists. For these NGOs “If Saudi Arabia were sincere about women’s rights, it would immediately and unconditionally release all those still detained for peacefully defending human rights”.

“Small step towards change”

But the appeal of the NGOs had little echo among professional players, who rather see the Saudi tournaments as a way of “promoting women’s golf in a new country”. Manon Gidali, one of the eight Frenchwomen who will play in Saudi Arabia, considers this week as “a small step towards change”, a feeling shared by Maha Haddioui. The Moroccan, the only professional golfer in the Arab world, declared in March to ArabNews be “proud to be able to inspire the little girls of Saudi Arabia”, and hoped the event would “to create vocations among Arab women “.

Only two proettes (term designating professional players) disassociated themselves from the tournament: the English Mel reid and Meghan MacLaren. The first, which has six LET titles to its credit, came out in 2018 and has declared to the American magazine Golfweek born “not comfortable with the idea of ​​visiting this country”, where homosexuality is punishable by death. For his part, Meghan MacLaren, best Briton last season, announced in January to skip the Saudi tournament, disagreeing with “the way it is used in Saudi Arabia” : “i try to make my decisions based on who i am as a person, not just as a golf player, said the holder of two LET titles in Telegraph. It’s obviously a huge tournament for us, but for me it goes beyond golf. I wish the sport as a whole would be more aware of the implications and what is truly beneficial, with more hindsight. “

A big tournament in a difficult context

But for Alexandra Armas, director of LET “aware of the debates” in the host country of the competition, “the tournament takes place for the right reasons (…): to develop the practice of golf, without taking into account age, gender or socioeconomic background”, as she explained to the Reuters news agency. Alexandra Armas also stressed that as director of the women’s circuit, her “responsibility was to give opportunities to play (to) athletes”. While many of the circuit’s tournaments have been canceled this season due to the global health crisis, maintaining Saudi competitions is therefore a boon for the European Women’s Tour. And for the players. Manon Gidali, the current fourth best Frenchwoman on the circuit, is “happy to participate (in Jeddah), it allows you to reconnect with competition. The Saudi tournament is an opportunity to be able to play, whereas we have been deprived of it for a long time this year “.

In addition to allowing them to regain the competition, Saudi tournaments can pay off big for female players. The two events have a total endowment of 1.5 million dollars (approximately 1.3 million euros). With its million dollars of gain (860,000 euros), the Saudi Ladies International represents the third largest tournament on the circuit in terms of financial rewards, after the Ladies Scottish Open and the British Women’s Open. A significant financial argument to encourage future projects, like Manon Gidali : “It’s a tournament that offers a very good endowment for women, which is great luck for us in this complicated context. LET has lost a lot of sponsors lately and the gains on the women’s circuit are very small compared to the men’s. ” Difficult in this situation to fight against what the lawyer Ines Osman name her “check policy” of the Saudi prince Mohammed ben salman.

In “complicated season with very few tournaments played”, to give up Saudi International would be shooting yourself in the foot according to Manon Gidali. “It’s not just a financial story, but also a ranking”, she explains. The professional players obtain each season a playing right, established according to the results of the tournaments and the endowments. “Suddenly, we have to do almost all tournaments because otherwise we risk losing our playing rights”, concludes the 27-year-old.

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