The International Relations of Saudi Arabia’s Golf Empire

As most of you know by now, the world of professional golf was rocked a few weeks ago when the PGA Tour announced an agreement to merge with the rival Saudi-funded LIV Golf. The lesser-known DP World Tour is also part of the deal, which will create a new entity tentatively labeled “NewCo.” Assuming the framework agreement gets finalized, the board of directors of the new organization will be chaired by Yasir al-Rumayyan, the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, but PGA executives will occupy a majority of the seats on its board. How this whole arrangement will shake out and its long-term effects on professional golf remain to be seen, especially now that the U.S. Justice Department and some American politicians are getting into the act.

As most of you know by now, the world of professional golf was rocked a few weeks ago when the PGA Tour announced an agreement to merge with the rival Saudi-funded LIV Golf. The lesser-known DP World Tour is also part of the deal, which will create a new entity tentatively labeled “NewCo.” Assuming the framework agreement gets finalized, the board of directors of the new organization will be chaired by Yasir al-Rumayyan, the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, but PGA executives will occupy a majority of the seats on its board. How this whole arrangement will shake out and its long-term effects on professional golf remain to be seen, especially now that the U.S. Justice Department and some American politicians are getting into the act.

Last year, I argued that the upstart LIV Golf faced an uphill fight against its venerable rival. Most attempts to create new sports leagues (e.g., the World Football League, the All-America Football Conference, North American Soccer League, World Boxing League) have been failures, especially when they were going up against an established institution. One reason—which seemed especially apt in the case of golf, a sport that thrives on tradition—is that the LIV tour had no history. It had no iconic tournaments played on fabled courses like St. Andrews or Augusta National, and no narrative featuring timeless moments of individual achievement. Golf fans love to talk about the past—Gene Sarazen’s legendary double eagle at the Masters in 1935, Corey Pavin’s exquisite 4-wood to the green at the 1995 U.S. Open, or Tiger Woods’s 15-shot victory margin at the Open in 2000—but the participants on the new tour cannot recount gripping tales of miraculous shot-making, cruel collapses, or triumphant comebacks. It could attract famous players, but it would take a long time before it could match its rivals’ monopoly on tradition. I didn’t think LIV was destined to fail—not with all that oil money behind it—I just didn’t think it would be able to supplant the PGA.

So does the unexpected decision to merge suggest I was wrong? I don’t think so. I was as surprised as anyone by the announcement—especially given the war of words between the two organizations over the past year—and the LIV tour wasn’t making much headway against the PGA, even though a prominent LIV golfer—Brooks Koepka—won one of golf’s four major tournaments a few weeks ago. Most top golfers had not defected to the LIV tour despite the financial incentives, respected pros such as Rory McIlroy remained critical of the endeavor, attendance at LIV events still trailed the PGA by wide margins, and it lacked the corporate sponsors and TV coverage that the PGA enjoyed. Like I said, it was facing an uphill battle.

So what did the Saudis do? Instead of continuing to back a second-best alternative to the PGA, they elected to absorb their rival instead. Their mantra seems to have been: “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.” And this was a brilliant move, because absorbing the PGA into a larger umbrella organization gives the new entity a direct connection to institutions, history, and traditions that go back more than a century. As for the PGA, signing the deal saved it from having to spend a lot of money countering its deep-pocketed rival.

This outcome also resembles what other upstart sports leagues have done to survive. As I pointed out in my original column, the American Football League began life as a rival to the existing National Football League and never equaled it in stature; it survived by merging with the NFL in 1970. Four of the original 11 teams in the American Basketball Association (ABA) survived the same way, merging with the rival NBA in 1976.

My original column used this story to make a broader point about international institutions. Like a sports organization with a long history, well-established institutions are hard to replace because they are familiar, because lots of other actors are invested in them, and because alternatives seem risky and untried. As international-relations theorists often say, “Institutions are sticky.” For these and other reasons, Chinese and Russian efforts to create alternatives to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other prominent institutions have had only limited success thus far, and loose groupings like the BRICS nations remain more symbolic than substantive. These features also explain why efforts to update institutions like the United Nations Security Council never seem to go anywhere, even when it is obvious the current arrangements are wildly out of date. The status quo survives because the countries that benefit from the current arrangements oppose changes that would dilute their influence and the countries that most want reform cannot agree on what the new arrangements should be.

Yet sometimes new members alter the original institution in significant ways. The NBA absorbed parts of the ABA and eventually adopted its innovation of the three-point shot, with far-reaching effects on the sport. The merger of the NFL and AFL led to the creation of the Super Bowl, which is now a global event. The same is true in international organizations: When new members join, they eventually try to mold the institution to reflect their interests. And it’s entirely possible that certain aspects of professional golf will be substantially different in a few years, even if it is hard to know exactly what changes to expect.

There are more important things to worry about than the fate of professional golf, but this episode is also a reminder of some of the uncomfortable realities of global politics. The first lesson is that hard power matters a lot more than soft power. Or, to put it somewhat differently: money talks. After spending many months excoriating the LIV tour and implying that anyone who did business with it was morally compromised, PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan reversed course and cut a deal. Presumably he hadn’t suddenly decided that Saudi Arabia’s conduct was perfectly acceptable; he just saw a lot of dollar signs and decided the PGA would be better off if it cashed in. Even McIlroy—one of the LIV tour’s harsher critics—admitted, “Honestly, I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that this is what’s going to happen.”

But don’t be too hard on Monahan (who did the deal) or on golfers like McIlroy who have reluctantly accepted it, because the PGA was just following in the footsteps of the Biden administration. President Joe Biden once said he was going to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime a “pariah,” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken took office insisting that human rights would be “at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” These idealistic sentiments soon fell victim to harsher imperatives: the administration needed the Saudis to pump more oil to bring down inflation, which led directly to the fist bump heard ‘round the world. Since then, Riyadh has gone from flirting with Beijing to collaborating openly, aiding Russia’s war in Ukraine by purchasing Russian energy exports at bargain prices, and cutting oil production despite explicit requests from Washington not to do so. Biden vowed that Saudi Arabia would suffer “consequences” for that act of defiance, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any. As has long been the case, being a U.S. ally in the Middle East means never having to say you’re sorry. It seems unfair (or at least unrealistic) to expect a bunch of golfers to take a more principled stand than the U.S. government has.

The merger is the latest step in Saudi Arabia’s broader effort to burnish its global image through what has been called “sportswashing.” It isn’t the first country to try to enhance its global image by getting involved in athletics, but I suspect there are limits to how effective this campaign will ultimately be. Money can buy a country a successful soccer team, the right to host a Formula 1 race or a tennis tournament, as well as entry into the elite world of golf, but raising a country’s profile in this way inevitably brings greater attention to the less savory elements of its behavior. The key point to keep in mind, however, is that Riyadh’s ability to command attention and wield influence rests solely on its ability to shower others with money. If the Saudi economy were to stumble and Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans to transform both the Saudi economy and key elements of Saudi society do not pan out, the influence it currently enjoys is likely to evaporate quickly. Given that demand for oil and gas are likely to decline as the world transitions away from fossil fuels and that climate change will make life in Saudi Arabia itself more difficult, we may be witnessing the peak of Saudi influence and not the rise of a new global power.

Lastly, this whole episode illustrates why I’m a foreign-policy realist. In the full-contact world of politics, people (or governments) are more likely to pursue their own selfish interests than to make major sacrifices for the sake of an ethical principle. I’m not happy about this state of affairs, but I’m not surprised by it, either. One might even say it’s par for the course.

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