Middle East

Saudi Arabia is now stealing sporting headlines as prince pursues global ambitions

Analysis by Nic Robertson, CNN

CNN  —  Saudi Arabia has been in the headlines a lot lately – this time for trying to find its place in the sporting world.

It’s spending big money. In an announcement that shocked the sporting world on Tuesday, golf’s US-based PGA Tour announced a merger with its rival, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf and the Dubai-sponsored DP World Tour (formerly known as the European Tour), ending a feud that has dogged the men’s professional game for the past year.

The shock partnership has set tongues wagging in capitals and on links courses around the world.

Already home to Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who is reportedly on a $200 million-a-year package, the Saudi Pro League this week also welcomed Ballon d’Or winner and France international Karim Benzema.

The last time most people paid this much attention to the kingdom was 2018 when Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi government agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The kingdom’s golfing coup is perhaps the crowning sporting achievement so far of heir apparent Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).

He has already landed a slot on the Formula One circuit, hosted all-star boxing fixtures as well as staging a string of global and regional musical events to wow local audiences to whom all of this is almost out of reality.

Before MBS got power, none of this was possible.

The speed and scale of his changes has earned him popularity among many of the country’s youth that is as unexpected as it is rare in Saudi’s history.

In sports, reputations are built on moments of brilliance. Conversely, in politics stripes are typically earned slowly. Decisions can take years to mature to benefits. For MBS, it’s different.

He is in a rush, as a disruptor. Indeed, he shored up his power by shaking down the old guard in 2017, many of whom were potential rivals for power.

More than 200 royals and businessmen were locked up at the Ritz hotel in Riyadh that year on allegations of corruption. The result was that formerly flamboyant and talkative royals with potentially powerful royal pedigrees have far less influence today and little chance of acquiring it.

It’s fair to say among MBS’s erstwhile Western partners he is still seen as a potentially hazardous interlocutor.

To them, he is seen as being responsible for sending the hit team that killed, dismembered and burnt Khashoggi, who was becoming critical of MBS’s high-speed reforms. MBS denied any personal involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi but took full responsibility as the country’s leader.

Khashoggi’s killing tarnished MBS’s reputation, and potentially set back his father King Salman’s ambitions for him to modernize the kingdom.

In 2015, when King Salman took the throne, the nation was ossifying, its royal court and bureaucracy bloated, sclerotic and by the accounts of many Saudis, deeply corrupt.

On the streets, conservative Islamist police held sway and women were banned from driving. The country had got stuck in a cultural time warp ever since its rulers panicked when Muslim radicals stormed Mecca in 1979. The royals feared for their future and pacified the Islamists by giving conservative religious scholars an outsized role in running the Kingdom.

Regional outlier

By the time King Salman came along, the 21st century was passing Saudi Arabia by.

The largest and most powerful of all the Gulf kingdoms was a cultural outlier, decades behind its neighbors in business and development, punching woefully below its weight.

That was until King Salman empowered MBS, not his oldest, but his chosen son, to fix it.

The LIV golf tour is the latest example, not just his intent to do that, but the lengths he is willing to go to achieve it.

Since getting to power, he banished the religious police almost overnight, downsizing Islam’s space in public life and replacing it with a new type of Saudi nationalism.

Women were allowed to go to soccer stadiums with men, national day parties were held outdoors on streets with music and dancing, unheard-of before the MBS era.

The changes didn’t stop there. Liberalizations allowed unmarried men and women to sit together in cafes, work in the same office, shop in the same stores together. New neighborhoods of Riyadh sprang up to cater for a new way of life.

Ultramodern office complexes dotted with fountains and palm trees, and street-side cafes that looked and felt like Dubai lured the countries young out of their homes.

MBS is the architect of a new and freer way of life for many, but those that cross him and take to social media to question his decisions risk disappearing. Even the few released after international pressure, like Loujain Al Hathloul, are out but can’t leave the country and have been warned to keep their thoughts to themselves or risk returning to prison.

Yet despite the harsh edges there is a soft power at work. Saudi has recently begun building a soccer league of extreme excellence with mega-priced European stars atop their lineup.

MBS wants the world to take him as seriously as many of his citizens now appear to.

Moscow and Beijing have got the message. Chinese President Xi Jinping has become an increasingly close geostrategic partner and Russian President Vladimir Putin, for now at least, benefits as MBS cuts oil production, ignoring US concerns that high oil prices help Moscow pay for its war in Ukraine.

The crown prince has also embarked on a regional and international diplomatic path aimed at making the kingdom a bigger player on the global stage. Saudi Arabia has led efforts to bring Syria in from the cold and tried to mediate in conflicts such as those in Sudan and even Ukraine. MBS has begun mending fences with former foes, including Turkey, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and even arch nemesis Iran. The thinking is that for his economic plans to succeed, he needs to guarantee stability.

On oil, he has made Saudi Arabia a bolder player. Once quick to heed US calls to open the taps and bring prices down, the kingdom is now ignoring those requests, at the risk of hurting its decades-long partnership with Washington. The message is that Saudi interests come first. And those interests are to bring in as many petrodollars as possible for the kingdom not to fall into a budget deficit or see its megaprojects fail.

What’s best for his nation

Like Putin and Xi, MBS wants what he thinks is best for his nation and for him that means the old paradigm of access to affordable energy in exchange for Western security guarantees that shunted Saudi Arabia in to a cultural cul-de-sac is no longer an option.

Perception is everything. America’s pivot to Asia, its failure in 2011 to stand by deposed allies during the Arab Spring and now its backing for Ukraine that most in the Gulf consider more misguided Western hegemony redolent of failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all help grease MBS’s tracks to a new relationship where he has some levers too.

The US wants oil production up, support for Ukraine and normalization with Israel.

But it’s on the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah where MBS’s potentially biggest challenges lie.

The clock is ticking on his Vision 2030, a bold and brash reimagination of city life supported by non-oil industries. It’s not just a new way to live but a necessary employer to cater for the country’s outsized young population. Two-thirds of Saudis are under the age of 35, and in part thanks to MBS, are finally tasting what their contemporaries in the outside world have enjoyed for years.

Saudi officials say Vision 2030 for a new city on the Red Sea and another mega project – the new Murabba – in the capital Riyadh may never be even partially realized but are intended to inspire the country and investors.

These are big gambles to keep people at work, and therefore happy in their lives and less likely to challenge MBS’s autocratic rule.

Plans of such scale are more often realized over generations rather than in the lifetime of a generation already alive and hungry for a meaningful future.

MBS is in a hurry. He is staking stability on a heady cocktail of ambition and panacea for the people. The image makeover is well underway, but the longer it takes to deliver on the substance, the higher the risk of failure.

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