Tennis star Rafael Nadal has been accused of supporting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to expand what critics call the regime’s “sportswashing” campaign after he was appointed ambassador of its tennis federation this week.
Riyadh has invested billions of dollars in golf, soccer, and Formula 1 — setting up a rival to the PGA tour and boosting its own domestic soccer league with foreign celebrities.
Rights groups see the move as a strategic and widespread effort to distract the world from Saudi Arabia’s human rights record while boosting the oil-reliant country’s economic growth.
Saudi Arabia might have its eye on tennis, but women players are not convinced
Employing the 22-time Grand Slam winner as an ambassador is part of Riyadh’s plan to make tennis “a major part of its international calendar,” as the Saudi Tennis Federation said, with Nadal set to visit the kingdom each year to nurture aspiring players, increase enthusiasm for the sport, and potentially open his tennis academy there. The country also hosted its first ATP Tour event in Jeddah last year— which saw exhibition matches between top-seeded tennis stars like Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, as well as Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur.
However, reports that Riyadh could host the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) final this year, prompted backlash from veteran women players Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert who wrote a letter to the WTA board saying, “Taking the WTA finals to Saudi Arabia would represent taking a significant step backwards, to the detriment of the WTA, women’s sports and women.” The women’s world number one player Iga Swiatek acknowledged that things were “not easy” for women in the kingdom, and said she didn’t know if Nadal’s involvement was “a good decision or not.”
Gulf money is too good to pass up for foreign sporting stars
“The Gulf States are a cash cow for all Western celebrities,” Ishaan Tharoor, the Washington Post’s foreign affairs columnist, told Semafor. “And Saudi is dead set on becoming a major tourist and sporting destination.” Tharoor noted that for many foreign stars now playing in the region, sponsorship funds are “too good” to pass — “even if the league itself is lame,” he said. Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson recently announced that he was leaving Saudi Arabia’s Pro League and will be returning to Europe with Ajax — just six months after signing a $38 million deal with the team. The athlete now faces a steep tax bill for exiting early. Tharoor compared Saudi Arabia’s investment in soccer to China’s failed attempt to dominate soccer amid “corruption scandals and the collapse of some major companies involved.”
Saudi’s crown prince is using sports to boost economic growth and his political appeal
While Saudi Arabia has been accused of using sports to boost its global reputation, Business Insider argued that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a “grander ambition: to level up Saudi Arabia’s economic growth.” Bin Salman told Fox News last September: “If sports washing going to increase my GDP by way of one percent, then I will continue doing sport washing,” adding, “I don’t care.” After achieving a 1% GDP growth through sports, the crown prince said he was determined to get another 1.5% boost from the sector. Bin Salman has “set out on a sport industry journey that he’s going to seek to fulfill, irrespective of how we label Saudi Arabia,” a business professor told BI. Experts said that bin Salman is also trying to raise his political profile by attracting soccer megastars like Ronaldo to boost his image with under-35s who make up 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population, according to BI.