By Gerry Marzorati
Illustration by Agnès Ricart
Tennis Is Unlikely to Resist the Kingdom's Involvement in the Sport. But it should.
In August of last year, 35-year-old Salma al-Shehab—a PhD student in dental medicine at England’s University of Leeds, and the mother of two children—was sentenced by a Saudi judge to 34 years in prison (to be followed by a 34-year travel ban) for her social media activity, most of it in support of women’s rights. She’d been arrested while vacationing back home in Saudi Arabia, and was sentenced initially to a six-year prison term. But the prosecutor was not satisfied with that, and brought the case to Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal. There, the judge decided to punish al-Shehab more harshly for “destabilizing the security and stability of the state.”
There are no jury trials in Saudi Arabia. There is a legal system, uncodified, that is based on sharia, Islamic law derived from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and left to individual judges to interpret. Salma al-Shehab had fewer than 3,000 followers on social media. Her crime was retweeting several posts critical of the Saudi regime, including one that called for an end to the country’s male guardianship system. There is a perception that this system has been reformed, and it is true that women may now, on their own, thanks to the loosening of some restrictions, seek employment in offices where men work, enter public spaces that are no longer gender-segregated, obtain a passport, and drive a car. But as the veteran foreign correspondent Megan K. Stack and others have written, this is true only for Saudi women who have a male guardian—a father or husband, an uncle or older brother—who is comfortable with this. The system, formalized vaguely two years ago with the issuing of the Personal Status Law, does not compel such guardians to allow women to do things the government now permits them to do. Rather, it says to more freethinking men: If you’re okay with your spouse or daughter getting a driver’s license, or working with men, we won’t interfere. As for those tradition-bound families or tribes—the majority of families and tribes, according to human-rights monitors—they can continue to withhold from girls and women the freedoms now legalized. And the Saudi government continues to require that all women obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry, and to access sexual and reproductive health care. The law, in effect, continues to assure that women are not equal to men, and that they ultimately remain under the control of men.
Saudi Arabia has no constitution, no freedoms of artistic expression or speech, no press freedoms, no freedom of assembly or association, no political parties or democratic elections. Its government is an absolute monarchy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, known as MBS, who last year also assumed the title of prime minister. Agents of MBS’s Saudi government assassinated the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government has staged mass executions. Prisoners are tortured. Freedom House, the Washington-based organization that advocates for democracy, political freedom, and human rights, ranks Saudi Arabia among the most repressive nations on earth. Even as some women are freer in MBS’s kingdom, women’s-rights activists continue to be hounded and arrested. Late last year, a 29-year-old fitness instructor popular on social media, Manahel al-Otaibi, was seized and charged with “defaming the kingdom at home and abroad.” Her posts included calls for more liberal dress codes and for LGBTQ+ rights in Saudi Arabia, where same-sex sexual activity is illegal, and where gay men have been imprisoned and lashed.
The Saudi government has embarked upon an ambitious program of investing in international sports. It’s brought F1 races to the kingdom. It’s hosted big boxing events. Through its $700 billion sovereign wealth fund, called the Public Investment Fund, it has financed contracts for international soccer stars like Cristiano Ronaldo ($200 million) to play for teams in its national league. The PIF funded the launch of a professional golf league, LIV, with players lured by extravagant sums from the struggling PGA. In June, the PIF reached a tentative agreement with the PGA to merge. The PIF is led by Yasir al-Rumayyan, chairman of the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, and chairman, too, of the English Premier League football club Newcastle United, which a PIF-led consortium purchased in 2021. Al-Rumayyan has now turned his attention to tennis. The PIF is working to conclude a multiyear deal with the ATP to bring the end-of-year Next Gen Finals, a showcase for the men’s tour’s young, budding stars, to Saudi Arabia. (It’s been held in Milan since its founding six years ago.) WTA chairman Steve Simon has visited the kingdom and is in continuing conversations with the Saudis.
It would be reasonable to expect that I am about to suggest that Saudi Arabia has embarked on an expensive international investment program in sports to launder its appalling human-rights record—that this is simply a case of sportswashing. It’s more dismal than that. Saudi Arabia shows few signs of caring what the world thinks of its human-rights record. Saudi Arabia gets to not care much about its human-rights image abroad because those with the most power to pressure the kingdom about its lack of political rights and civil liberties—the governments of the United States and Western Europe, and the CEOs of large multinational corporations—have chosen not to do so.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has integrated economically. But that integration did not lead to a broad internationalization of the rights and norms associated with liberal democracy. If anything, the globalization of the world’s economy has fostered a backlash of nationalism, much of it revanchist. The developed world got longer supply chains and cheaper goods (and the resentments of those who sense no benefits from this). It witnessed a significant expansion of the rights and liberties associated with liberal democracy in South Africa and those Central and Eastern European countries freed from the Soviet bloc—but few other places. (The Arab Spring of the early 2010s never arrived in Saudi Arabia.) For the world’s autocracies and authoritarian states, the path forward in the 21st century has been to foster economic growth and consumerism while keeping a tight lid on democratic urges and personal freedoms. (See: China.)
Saudi Arabia under MBS has brought pop music and luxury shops to its cities while attempting to deepen its interconnection with the global economy through means beyond the oil beneath its sands—for which it foresees (correctly, let us hope, for the sake of climate change) less and less demand in the coming decades. The PIF is investing in gaming, in electric-car manufacturing, in tourism and entertainment, in a Saudi economic future beyond fossil fuel. It’s eager for partnerships, coinvestors, beyond its borders. It’s a strategy—it actually has a name, Vision 2030—and it is one in which an oppressive Islamic monarchy continues to thrive as a global participant in a clean-energy, postindustrial economy.
Sports, then, as the Saudis understand it, is not a means to obscuring the kingdom’s suppression of rights and freedoms but simply a piece of the portfolio. Investing in sports costs relatively little. There is a potential for a payoff down the road through the global media contracts that sports ownership brings, and perhaps through the connections with fashion and entertainment that sports figures are increasingly creating. In the meantime, sports provide tentpole events that draw the sort of monied people the Saudis want to partner with in other sorts of businesses. Yasir al-Rumayyan dreams of the Saudis hosting the 2030 World Cup, as Qatar did last year—with Elon Musk and Jared Kushner watching the final together from a luxury box. That’s the sort of immediate benefit to the kingdom that sports can provide.
The Saudis’ move into tennis is unlikely to be resisted by the ATP. Top men’s players—Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Taylor Fritz, Alexander Zverev—have already participated in lucrative exhibition matches in the kingdom, and no one on the men’s tour has raised objections publicly to an observation offered recently on Twitter by Nick Kyrgios: “Finally. They see the value,” Kyrgios wrote, referring to the ATP leadership. “We are going to get paid what we deserve to get paid. Sign me up.” He added, for emphasis, a number of money-bag emojis.
Later, he posted that when his girlfriend accompanied him to Saudi Arabia, where he played an exo, she felt comfortable. That, more or less, sums up how the men’s tour views the plight of women in the world.
It remains to be seen if players on the women’s tour share Kyrgios’ perspective. Billie Jean King, in London for the Wimbledon Championships, said at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the WTA that she supported talks between the WTA and Saudi Arabia—“I’m a huge believer in engagement.” King brought up that the women’s tour held its first tournament in Doha in 2008, and that this created “wonderment,” leaving the impression that she believes bringing women’s tennis to Qatar had somehow fostered change there. King had a lead role in creating the WTA, and is a tireless supporter of women’s rights and LBGTQ+ rights in sports and beyond. But what she had to say about Doha amounts to magical thinking. Qatar’s male-guardian laws, to take one example, are as draconian as those in Saudi Arabia, and the presence of women’s tennis has done nothing demonstrably to improve the standing of Qatari women.
However, tournaments in the Persian Gulf—in Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well as Doha—have filled out the WTA calendar in February, and the prize money on offer is sizable, especially given that the events draw relatively few spectators. And money is top of mind on the women’s tour. For the WTA’s chief executive, Steve Simon, and perhaps its new commercial partner, CVC Capital Partners, Saudi money could provide a means to closing the pay gap between the men’s and women’s players, as China was doing before the COVID pandemic and the controversy surrounding the silencing of Peng Shuai. Is increasing the WTA’s revenue stream to achieve parity with men dependent on bringing the tour to still another repressive, authoritarian state—one, in particular, condemned by human-rights organizations worldwide for its treatment of women? That, in essence, is the quandary that Simon and the WTA find themselves in.
Earlier this year, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, was forced to abandon its attempt to have the major sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup be Saudi Arabia’s new tourism promotion, Visit Saudi, after an angry backlash from players and from the tournament’s organizers in Australia and New Zealand. And at least one top WTA player has expressed her reservations about Saudi involvement with women’s tennis. Daria Kasatkina, who has been ranked as high as No. 8 in the world this year, is an openly gay player, a rarity on the tour, and has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a rarity for a Russian player. When asked about playing in Saudi Arabia at a Wimbledon post-match press conference in early July, she said: “It’s easier for the men because they feel pretty good there.” She went on to say: “Money talks in our world now. For me, I don’t think everything is about the money.
Gerald Marzorati is a contributor to Racquet. He writes regularly about tennis at newyorker.com. His latest book is Seeing Serena.