A little after 9:00 pm Eastern tonight, President Biden will board Air Force One for a controversial trip to Saudi Arabia. “When I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday,” Biden wrote in a Saturday editorial for The Washington Post, “my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values.”
Wince. It is impossible for a U.S. president to avoid sounding morally constipated whenever the topic of the Kingdom comes up. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is altogether hideous and has been for decades. Osama bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia, 15 of the 19 hijackers that day were Saudi citizens, and those hijackers had ties to Saudi officials — yet the U.S. “decided that Saudi Arabia, its strategic partner in the Middle East, had no role in the attacks,” CNN reported in 2021. There is also Saudi Arabia’s horrific war in Yemen, which was significantly supported by the U.S. The gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi remains unresolved, but our own intelligence community agrees it was a hit ordered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden will be shaking his hand in three days.
Why is Biden going? Oil and war weapons, of course. Saudi Arabia is a top weapons sales client of the U.S., and the “pariah” status Biden wanted to saddle the Kingdom with did not sit well with the lobbyists, not to mention the bomb industries they represent. There is also politics in this trip: The country and the world are teetering on the edge of recession, and the president has decided to forego a number of Saudi-related campaign promises in order to pull as many levers as possible to knock the price of gasoline down before the midterm elections turn into a Republican rout. It probably won’t work.
“The president has justified his trip as a necessary move to promote stability in the Middle East and to deter Russian and Chinese aggression,” writes Post publisher Fred Ryan. “But the president should know meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is known, will give the Saudi leader exactly what three years of Saudi PR campaigns, lobbying expenses, and even a new golf league have not: a return to respectability. This undeserved absolution will, in turn, only undermine the foreign-policy goals Biden hopes to achieve.”
Ah, yes. Golf. We’ve heard of greenwashing and pinkwashing — sneaky advertising tricks to disguise the activities of polluters and LGBTQ haters — but Saudi Arabia is the first country I’ve heard of to deploy golfwashing as a means of rehabilitating its reputation. If you don’t follow the game, you probably haven’t heard about the LIV scandal, but it’s been a hyper-controversial nine-days wonder in the rarefied atmosphere of professional golf. Reputations have been ruined, friendships have been destroyed, and Tiger Woods turned down a near-billion-dollar offer to participate. As he is already a billionaire, he can do that shit. Heady stuff indeed.
“Golf is a good walk spoiled.” Mark Twain is generally but inaccurately credited with coining that line — Twain died 38 years before the quip appeared in print — but whoever did say it was more right than they knew. The game’s most revered clubs have served as citadels for establishment racism and sexism. The average course in the U.S. uses more than 300,000 gallons of water a day according to Audubon International, and courses in desert climates can go through a million gallons a day maintaining golf’s required and environmentally harmful monoculture ecosystem. That system also requires massive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and all of this takes place over about 150 acres of land that some might argue would be better used for affordable housing or public green space. At present, there are more than 9,000 operating golf courses and country clubs in the U.S. alone, many of them exclusive members-only establishments.
It should go with saying that golf for the most part is a game aimed at the rich, involving exorbitant green fees to get on the course in the first place, an unwieldy and expensive bag of clubs, (plastic) spiked shoes, and the cost of a golf cart if you want to spoil the walk from the jump. Golf for the most part is a throwback, a far less dangerous cousin to thoroughbred horse racing and heavyweight boxing, a post-WWII-era venue for poor folks to watch “the elite” do their thing.
What, you may be asking, does this all have to do with Saudi Arabia?
When Saudi Arabia — in its quest to rehabilitate its gruesome reputation — recently announced the formation of LIV Golf as a competitor to the PGA Tour (the main organizer of men’s professional golf tours in the U.S.), a civil war of sorts erupted. The main impetus provided by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was money: Its leaders were throwing hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money into every tournament, so you get a check even if you come in 24th place. The PGA does not do this.
Big names like Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson jumped on board, each making unbelievably embarrassing excuses for Saudi Arabia’s wretched global activities. “These LIV golfers know the Saudis butchered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi,” writes Rick Reilly for the Post. “They know the Saudis jail dissenters, criminalize homosexuality and oppress women. And in response, the players have sent a message loud and clear: We don’t care. We want bigger jets.”
Make no mistake: The PGA is not staffed by saints. The institution itself has long been a bastion of racist and sexist ideologies, as Lex Pryor eloquently explains: “If golf is to transform, it must first face the inescapable and foundational truth that while it has meant many things over the years — money, power, leisure — it has above all meant whiteness.” Adding insult to insult, spectators at Tour events can expect to pay $18 for a beer.
Now, thanks to LIV Golf and Saudi Arabia, the game stands on the cusp of representing the indefensible obfuscation of butchery and terrorism, and all in the name of more money, please. Golf was never perfect and already has quite a bit to answer for, but the road to that redemption does not pass through the Saudi palace. President Biden is about to find that out the hard way.