Justin Rose is making a political statement, whether he likes it or not.
The world No. 1 isn’t alone doing so at the Saudi International this week.
No. 2 Brooks Koepka, No. 3 Dustin Johnson and No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau are all making statements with their decisions to play in the inaugural European Tour event in Saudi Arabia. They do so by choosing to play amid the still smoldering outrage over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
They’ll be playing the same week a United Nations human rights investigator and her team of forensic and legal experts arrive in Turkey, where they have requested to visit the crime scene at the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul.
The New York Times reported late last year that the C.I.A. concluded Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said a little more than a week ago that Congress plans to re-introduce sanctions against those implicated in Khashoggi’s murder.
“I have concluded that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States cannot move forward until MBS has been dealt with,” Graham said, using the initials for the crown prince.
Four of the top five players in the Official World Golf Ranking are helping to move golf’s new relationship with the crown prince forward.
“I’m not a politician,” Rose said. “I’m a pro golfer.”
OK, Rose may not be a politician, but he’s a political pawn being used to make a statement this week.
Whether they like it or not, Rose and every other player in the event are strategic pieces being used to move the Saudis’ economic interests across a blood-spattered chess board. Having four of the top five players in the world rankings is a powerful message for the crown prince as he pushes reconciliation with the global business world. The tour’s elite are playing in King Abdullah Economic City.
For Rose and golf’s best, there are always challenges taking the game to new corners of the world. With so much international strife, there are complications growing their brands globally.
When does playing golf become playing politics?
What are the rules doing business with political entities?
Where do you draw the line?
Maybe you start by refusing to play golf in countries whose leaders the C.I.A. believe gave the order to torture, assassinate and dismember a Washington Post columnist who was also a Saudi national.
Of course, Amnesty International’s issues with Saudi Arabia go beyond Khashoggi’s murder. The organization cites the Saudi government for severely restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly, for executing activists and for systemic discrimination of women. It also cites the government for inadequately protecting women against sexual and other violence.
Maybe the tour pros in Saudi Arabia can take solace knowing they aren’t acting much differently than most corporate titans did when mixing with the Saudi delegation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.
Bloomberg News reported the Saudis were “making nice in the Swiss mountain resort’s universal language: money.”
After enduring three months of corporate cold shoulders, the Saudis were welcomed to the forum with renewing interest from investors excited about the country’s plans for big capital market deals and new global investments.
“The signs are damage control is working,” Reuters reported.
The Washington Post concluded the same.
“The Khashoggi killing now seems only a bump in the road for Riyadh,” the Post’s Ishaan Tharoor reported.
The European Tour has paved a lot of admirable roads for today’s pros, but the road to Saudi Arabia doesn’t look like one of them.
Corporations are known for their often blind pursuit of the bottom line, but tour pros aren’t blind, though they may be going to Saudi Arabia with their eyes closed.
“It is not the Saudi Arabian people who ordered Khashoggi murdered,” Kenneth Roth, head of the Human Rights Watch, told France’s AFP during the World Economic Forum last week. “It is a particular government and a particular leader.
“I think the real question now is who gave the command.”
If the crown prince were to show up to present the trophy Sunday at the Saudi International, it probably wouldn’t be a good time to ask.