There’s More to Saudi Arabia’s Investments Than ‘Sportswashing’

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In April, the international governing body for women’s professional tennis made a controversial announcement: The annual season-ending tournament for the Women’s Tennis Association, or WTA, will be held in Riyadh from 2024 to 2026.

As might be expected, the decision caused an uproar. Critics pointed to Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, and specifically on women’s rights, to argue the tournament, known as the WTA Finals, should not be staged in the country. In their eyes, Saudi Arabia’s offer of lucrative investments in the WTA, including a record prize pot for the tournament, in order to win hosting rights is simply the latest example of Riyadh’s sportswashing.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s rapid succession of jaw-dropping investments in the global sports industry, made through its Public Investment Fund, is in part responsible for the sudden rise of the term “sportswashing”—essentially the use of athletics to improve a country’s global image. In this case, the argument is that Riyadh is using its sports investments to distract the world from its human rights record.