Inside LIV Golf’s Saudi Arabian tour stop

Asoka Elon

The Saudis have pledged billions to disrupt golf and alter the kingdom’s reputation. At a tour stop in Jeddah, those efforts were on full display.

Volunteers are seen on the course during the opening day of the LIV Golf Invitational Jeddah at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Saudi Arabia.  (Photo by Charles Laberge/LIV Golf via Getty Images)
Volunteers are seen on the course during the opening day of the LIV Golf Invitational Jeddah at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Saudi Arabia. (Charles Laberge/LIV Golf via Getty Images)

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KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia — Hundreds of young women wandered out their doors as early as 6 a.m. one recent day, headed to a bus stop in Jeddah. Most boarded one of the exhaust-belchers wrapped in golden vinyl and the ubiquitous words: “Vision 2030.”

Saudi Arabia is hellbent on transforming itself, or at least convincing the world it is, striving toward a post-oil and pro-women future. LIV Golf, the controversial renegade series financed by the Saudi government, is a small part of that plan. For its tournament in the homeland of its investor, it needed volunteers to direct foot traffic, hold ropes and lift signs (“PLEASE STAND STILL”) as famous millionaires prepared to swing.

The Saudi Universities Sports Federation, an NCAA-like organization overseen by the kingdom’s ministry of education, requires students to do volunteer work. Some assignments are better than others, and there’s no more plum a gig than working a golf tournament. So an army of students applied, and more than 300 were chosen and told selections were based on exemplary class attendance.

Arriving at the course, though, the overwhelming majority have something else in common: They’re women.

“The rulers here are transforming this country very, very fast,” says Bouchaib el Jadiani, the head of mass participation and national teams for Golf Saudi, the sport’s marketing and youth outreach arm. When the organization recently announced a new girls’ league, el Jadiani says, there were 1,300 sign-ups in 72 hours. “How many years have they been locked? This is the beauty of the transformation: Now our time has come.”

It’s a dynamic on display from the moment you touch down in Jeddah. International travel can be disorienting, particularly when the destination has historically closed itself to the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia allowed its first tourist visas in 2018, the same year a national ban was lifted on women driving and working outside their home. It was part of the mass distancing of the country’s hyper-conservative Islamic culture by the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince and prime minister Mohammed bin Salman, that for the first time allowed Saudi women to exercise, play sports and attend sporting events.

Considerably less visible is any reminder of lingering oppression: Women still must get a male guardian’s approval to marry, and in August a Saudi woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets critical of the government. The marketing push is meant to deflect attention from that and onto the promise that Riyadh or Jeddah or Neom — a planned supercity that doesn’t yet exist but will supposedly include a $1 trillion, 110-mile horizontal building — may be the next Dubai, the futuristic metropolis and global tourist destination just across the Arabian Peninsula.

The sales pitch is so vigorous, the supposed changes so abrupt and in conflict with the kingdom’s reputation, that merely arriving here forces you to question your own eyes and ears. Passport control at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport is staffed almost entirely by women. Is this the result of an emphasis on diversity hiring? Or, considering airports are often the initial impression of a place, just the first thing the palace wants you to see?

In the airport garage, a driver tasked with shuttling reporters to the hotel engages the massaging rear seats in his LIV-branded luxury car. Saudi Arabia has a long history of jailing, intimidating and censoring journalists. Four years after it drew worldwide condemnation when Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post, was murdered by a Saudi “death squad” — at the direction of bin Salman, American officials say has its stance softened? Or is it just another act of apparent hospitality meant to win favor or even lower guards, not unlike the deep-sea fishing trip, go-kart racing and the four-day vacation to “two of the Kingdom’s most prestigious destinations” offered to the media assembled here? (The Post declined these offers.)

“They want to behave like that because they need to wash their face,” says Zeinab Abu al-Kheir, whose brother has been on death row in a Saudi prison since 2014 on alleged drug smuggling charges. Through human rights group Reprieve, she wrote a letter this month to former PGA Tour star Greg Norman, LIV Golf’s chief executive and commissioner, calling for Norman to demand an end to capital punishment in the kingdom. Norman didn’t reply, nor did anyone else at LIV.

At Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, an island of lush green in an ocean of desert brown, LIV staffers wear shorts and skirts, historically frowned upon in Saudi. They insist this is the real Saudi — safe, friendly, less restrictive than western media suggests — and facilitate interviews with anyone who helps spread the good news.

“You are American,” al-Kheir points out. “They want to hide this, what they are doing, and give the world the show that they are nice and they are changed. They change, yes. But it is still not enough.”

LIV, with a three-year, $3 billion pledge from the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, has an almost bottomless reserve of cash. The series reportedly lured golf stars Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau from the PGA Tour for a combined $550 million in signing bonuses.

In Jeddah, players stay at a hotel overlooking the Red Sea and spend evenings partying on a massive yacht. During news conferences, they take frequent questions about course conditions and weather patterns and avoid references to the host nation’s poor human rights record or that 120 people were put to death here in the first half of 2022. The week’s controversy centers on whether players should receive points in the Official World Golf Ranking for their LIV play, not increasing tension between bin Salman and President Biden as Saudi cozies up to Russia.

“It’s such an awkward time zone,” Patrick Reed said as part of an explanation for why he hadn’t followed the news and couldn’t possibly comment on it. “Everything will work out.”

The buses loaded with volunteers arrive behind fencing near the 18th fairway. Golf carts shuttle them to their postings six at a time. A few hold ropes and signs, yes. The vast majority have nothing to do. Some seek shade under large canopy tents, chat with friends, pick at the free snacks. Many stare at their phones.

“For you,” former Masters champion Sergio Garcia says, offering his ball to a volunteer in a niqab. But she is texting, and the would-be piece of memorabilia falls to the ground. A White fan approaches, notices the ball and Garcia’s confusion and stuffs the ball in his pocket.

Is this a productive use of the students’ volunteer time? Or, with a worldwide audience and reporters present, is the actual assignment just being here — and being seen?

“I see people playing, and I want to play,” one volunteer says, taking a break from killing time with her friends near the 18th tee box to conduct a short interview with a media relations consultant listening in.

“In the past it wasn’t that familiar,” another volunteer says of golf. “Now there are new things to learn about.”

“Life is good,” another says.

Ninety minutes south, a few hours before the LIV season’s penultimate event, a 43-year-old Saudi man weaves between buildings in Old Jeddah. Its historic mud and coral structures have withstood sieges and revolts for five centuries. But can they survive the next decade and the vision of a ruthlessly ambitious crown prince? Bin Salman is racing to modernize the kingdom by 2030, in hopes of expanding the Saudi economy and decoupling it from exporting oil.

There is scaffolding everywhere. Abdullah Assiri, a licensed guide in the booming Saudi tourism industry, talks over the sound of power tools and change. The building with the green awnings, he says, used to be a traditional family home not far from where pilgrims disembarked on their way to Mecca. It’s being gutted. Not long ago a woodworker’s meticulously constructed house was demolished.

“My fear,” Assiri says. “The change is fast. You feel it.”

He forces a smile. Two Saudi police officers trail closely behind, and the small tour group includes a pair of government officials.

“But thanks God,” Assiri says, “the Ministry of Culture starts bringing everything back.”

A five-star hotel is planned for the site of the home, a cafe in place of the woodworker’s house, a specialty coffee house where the Egyptian embassy stood. Cranes dot the city skyline; Starbucks and TGI Friday’s and AMC Theatres line a four-lane highway, giving the northern part of Saudi’s commercial hub a suburban Dallas feel. In the distance is the partially complete Jeddah Tower, surrounded by massive construction equipment, designed to surpass Dubai’s Burj Khalifa as the tallest building in the world.

Royal Greens is one of seven golf courses in Saudi Arabia, but el Jadiani says 30 are under construction. Many will anchor sprawling resorts, enough for the 100 million annual visitors the nation has promised by 2030. It’s attractions such as these, Assiri says, that led the government last year to pledge to hire 10,000 new tour guides.

“It’s like, look, this is our first championship golf course that we’ve made here on the Red Sea, and wait to see what’s coming,” Othman Almulla, the kingdom’s first pro golfer, says on the course one afternoon. “All Saudi is doing is saying, ‘Look, we have a lot of really, really good things happening in the country, and we just want you to come see it.’ I think we can come off as being misunderstood.”

But is this a necessary and overdue modernization, as one Saudi journalist insists, even as families such as hers are displaced to raze crumbling buildings to make space for the gleaming new structures? Or, amid the social progress, the hasty abandonment of cultural touchstones?

Until recently, Assiri wasn’t so sure. Shopkeepers had begun asking him when the tourists would start coming. They adapted their business models, preparing for the inevitable boom, and even skipped prayers to keep their businesses open. Still, the cafes in Old Jeddah are empty, the electric scooters sit idle, and golf carts procured to show visitors around the old city wait in an alley unoccupied.

Assiri used to notice these things, too, but his continuing education included a course in “change management.” It taught him that to question or resist evolution is to be selfish.

“I have to be more open,” he says. “I have to look not only from my place. I have to listen to others.”

Now he urges patience. Good things are coming, he assures doubters. Just wait. Neom and the Line and a rejuvenated Jeddah. Assiri has even come around on his wife and sister getting their driver’s licenses, and not long ago someone asked whether he would like to add a girls’ team to his soccer coaching duties.

“If you ask me before?” he says and shrugs. “I have to believe in the vision. Now I say, ‘Why not?’ ”

After nearly a year of controversy, lawsuits and even the occasional golf tournament, it’s impossible to know if Saudi Arabia is getting its money’s worth from LIV. Its inaugural season concludes this week, with the team championship tournament at Trump National Doral in Florida, and in mainstream quarters the series is still viewed as corrupt, its players greedy, its investor following Russia, China and Qatar in trying to “sportswash” its image. Television networks and streaming services have reportedly balked at making a deal with LIV.

If the Jeddah tournament was the latest commercial for the kingdom, players and the legion of student volunteers mere pawns in a larger game of geopolitical chess, it had limited reach. Only 17,000 viewers watched on YouTube as Koepka shot a first-round 59, and fewer than 300,000 logged on to watch Koepka fend off “Smash GC” teammate Peter Uihlein to pocket a combined $4.75 million for three days’ work.

“If a player wins a golf tournament in a forest and no one sees it, does it count?” PGA Tour golfer Joel Dahmen posted on Twitter.

LIV’s leadership claims it is unbowed, saying 2022 was a beta test with a few simple objectives from its financial backer: bring the concept to life, sign golfers and play an actual season. Atul Khosla, LIV’s president and chief operating officer, says it used the eight events to produce a TV-ready broadcast and gather 150,000 data points that reveal what spectators want and what they could live without.

“There are many things that look great on a PowerPoint and an Excel spreadsheet, but once you get on course, it was a bad idea,” Khosla says. “I don’t think anybody here woke up and said, ‘Let’s disrupt golf.’ I think we woke up and said, ‘Where is there an opportunity in the world of sports to go out and be innovative, and what does the data tell us?’ ”

Music on the course? A surprise hit, he says, among players and fans. Indoor fan villages? Not so much. Khosla, whose background is in professional soccer and the NFL, adds that young families with children will be at the center of LIV’s 2023 strategy, with 14 events packaged as “golf festivals,” he says, with increased emphasis on four-golfer teams rather than individual play.

Then again, that may not be the paramount subject of Khosla’s calls with the Public Investment Fund’s board of directors. “For a good, viable league,” he says, “you have to get the product on air.”

A lucrative media deal may be the only pathway to a long-term financial return for Saudi’s massive initial investment. Last year the NFL signed a new deal with broadcasters worth $110 billion, CBS and Turner agreed last year to a contract extension that will pay the NCAA $1 billion per year just to air the men’s basketball tournament, and the PGA Tour’s 2020 media rights deal is worth $875 million per year. Khosla declined to provide a timeline for a possible agreement for broadcasting rights, saying negotiations with various outlets are ongoing. LIV has denied a report that it was close to a deal in which it would pay Fox Sports to air events.

And if Phase 2 fails? Or LIV gets boxed out of the crowded sports conversation? Or the kingdom’s millennial leader trains his focus on something new?

“The story of Saudi Arabia: this habit of investing huge amounts of money in building bright, shiny objects,” says Gerald M. Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and diplomacy expert at the Middle East Institute. “And then when they don’t fly, just walking away.”

Around here, reminders of the throne’s short attention span are everywhere. Jeddah Tower, the 167-floor skyscraper planned to be the world’s tallest structure, has remained one-third finished since the project was suspended in 2018. Riyadh’s $10 billion financial district still isn’t complete 16 years after construction began.

King Abdullah Economic City, home of Royal Greens, was announced in 2005 as the Middle East’s next megacity: space for 2 million residents, high-speed rail, a budget of $100 billion. It was Neom before Neom. Two decades later, 7,000 people live here. With buildings empty and construction stalled, it feels like a ghost town.

The center of Saudi’s current vision is a hope to begin diversifying its economy by 2030. Tourism, science, technology. For now, it remains reliant on oil and at the mercy of its constantly fluctuating price. From 2015 to 2019, a barrel averaged about $60, before a sharp rise the past two years. If the value suddenly plummets?

“Saudi Arabia tightens its belt,” Feierstein says. “When you’re doing that, the kinds of things that automatically go on the chopping block are things like LIV.”

Not far from the 18th tee at Royal Greens, there is a concession stand with air-conditioned restrooms, an ice cream truck that accepts Apple Pay and a partial view of the Red Sea. A half dozen of the student volunteers sit on Persian rugs as the hours pass, the temperature rises, the novelty fades.

It’s midafternoon when a meandering golf cart approaches, and one of the volunteers walks into the path. The young woman in a white LIV hat signals for it to stop and says she needs a ride to the bus stop. Climbing in, she offers her name and speaks openly; The Post is choosing not to identify her. She’s 19, studying information systems management at a university in Jeddah.

“Do you know Arabic?” she asks. “I’m going to teach you an Arabic word: khalas. It means I’ve had enough. This s— is too much, bro.”

She’s tired, hot, bored. And she’s nobody’s pawn, so she neither alerts her supervisor nor asks anyone for permission to leave. She says her father didn’t even know she was volunteering until this morning. Why would she tell him? She was born into a moderate household, she says, but even if her father disagreed, she was going to King Abdullah Economic City anyway.

“Your daughter wants to go out,” she says. “Your daughter wants to explore the world.”

She wants to travel, learn Spanish and French, someday return to Saudi Arabia and become a diplomat. There aren’t enough jobs here, she says, and too little outside belief in the kingdom’s social agenda. She imagines a future with diversity among its leadership, a place where visitors needn’t question if what they see and hear is real. In a country where her grandfather was his wife’s legal guardian, where just five years ago driving a car would have been considered a crime, she calls herself a feminist.

“Women’s rights is like drinking water,” she says. “If I drink water, will they say to me, ‘Oh, you are so lucky, you are so good, you drink water’? No! It’s normal. When we say a father is good with his daughter, no, that’s normal. You are so good; you let me go out, you let me learn — no, that’s the normal thing.”

The cart veers to the right, off the pavement and onto a gravel path.

“I am not afraid,” she says. “I don’t care.”

Is she an outlier here? Or are there others like her in the kingdom, willing to speak their minds and refuse to be a pliant character in a global, well-funded production? Regardless, she has made her own choice, and across five days in Saudi Arabia, this would end up seeming like the rarest thing: an organic, truly genuine interaction.

She hadn’t known the cart would be passing. Even the driver didn’t. There were no messaging experts standing by or government officials monitoring her words or outside forces needling her to support their agenda. She was just sharing her own perspective and that she was done here — khalas — and had decided to leave.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/10/28/liv-gold-saudi-arabia-event/

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