Making social science accessible

13 Jul 2023

Politics and Society

UK in the world

Tom Howe unpacks ‘sportswashing’ in light of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s increasing involvement in several major sports. He suggests that while the term is primarily applied to non-Western states, Western countries, including the UK, often also benefit from it.  

If I asked you what connects Saudi Arabia and Qatar, you would likely say that they are both petrostates with authoritarian systems of governance and grim human rights records. You might also say that they are becoming increasingly important players in several different sports.

Through its Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia acquired a controlling share in Newcastle United Football Club in 2021 and now, following the recent settlement between the Saudi-funded LIV golf and the PGA tour, exerts significant control over world golf.

Qatar on the other hand became the owner of Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, F.C. Barcelona’s first commercial kit sponsor in 2013, and the 2022 host of FIFA’s Men’s Football World Cup.

Together, these actions have meant that both states have been accused of sportswashing.

Sportswashing refers to an organisation or state’s attempt to re-brand itself using investment in sports sponsorship, ownership, or hosting of events to reduce the salience of negative attributes and improve its reputation through association with valued activities or characteristics.

Saudi Arabia being discussed in relation to a successful football team or golf tournament won’t cover up human rights abuses, but it does potentially generate positive sentiment and somewhat muddy the water.

While this seems simple, it is important not to minimise the nuance and controversy associated with the term.

An accusation of sportswashing reflects a disapproving assessment that a state is using a form of propaganda to develop its soft power.

Those refuting these accusations tend to respond by suggesting that these activities are a form of diplomacy, with sports acting as a high-profile public relations tactic being used to build a reputation, manage relations, and develop soft power.

The distinction between these positions – what is and isn’t sportswashing – is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, it is almost exclusively applied to non-Western states.

While Western commentators widely labelled the 2022 World Cup as a prime example of sportswashing, few would describe the London 2012 Olympics as such. Instead, London 2012 is described as successful example of nation branding that boosted the UK’s soft power. Why should this be the case, though?

After all, the UK was awarded the Olympics just two years after it invaded Iraq, and the games followed the notorious 2011 riots – with Jeremy Hunt, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, acknowledging that the UK would use the games to dispel the negative image the riots generated.

This is not to suggest that relativism undermines sportswashing’s utility; it is a valuable concept that captures an interesting phenomenon. However, tensions and contradictions do arise when it is applied uncritically.

The 2022 World Cup helps to illustrate this point. Those countering claims of sportswashing suggest that far from deflecting attention from Qatar’s human rights record, the event provided unprecedented scrutiny.

No doubt more people are familiar with Qatar’s quasi-feudal kafala system now than before the World Cup. So, from this perspective, the event was a catalyst for change, creating the impetus for the 2017 labour reforms that would apparently overhaul the kafala system.

As it turns out, the impact of the reforms has been limited, and certainly not enough to hail the World Cup as a significant driver of change. Yet for those not following the minutiae of Qatari labour law, the impression is still one of progress – even if it may be limited.

This points to an important under-discussed component of sportswashing. Its success partly depends on those willing to talk up the prospects of reform and change.

David Wearing, an academic at SOAS, suggests the prospect of reform is part of a wider attempt to legitimise the extensive relationships countries like the US or UK have with Gulf states. Indeed, for over 70 years, the New York Times periodically has described the Saudi Royals as agents of reform – despite ample evidence to the contrary.

According to Wearing, this orientalist discourse treats Gulf states as inherently conservative places that need the support of progressive Western states to modernise and reform.

Here, it becomes important to adopt a nuanced perspective recognising that while Gulf states are active agents repressing their citizenry, states like the UK have supplied the weapons, technical support, and training that have facilitated repression and human rights abuses.

Western states, therefore, also benefit from Gulf sportswashing, with events like the World Cup presenting a modernising Qatar that is deserving of further Western support.

The Saudi takeover of Newcastle United (NUFC) via the PIF further demonstrates this point. Initially announced in April 2020, the PIF-backed bid to buy NUFC was concluded in October 2021. The drawn-out takeover received widespread coverage, including a scathing critique by Amnesty International, which branded the move a blatant instance of sportswashing.

Despite Boris Johnson’s denials in the House of Commons, an investigation by the Athletic appears to show his government took a keen interest in the takeover, meeting Saudi and Premier League officials throughout the negotiations.

Ministers and officials were keen to stress the deal’s significance, suggesting that the bid would boost the UK-Saudi relationship and its failure would harm the UK’s strategic interests – a point Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) stressed to Boris Johnson via text in June 2020.

The 59 pages of heavily redacted emails the Athletic based its investigation on seem to demonstrate a strong pattern of involvement and engagement across several departments, including the FCDO, Cabinet Office, DIT, and DCMS.

Why was the government so engaged? According to the Athletic, MBS had suggested that the deal’s failure would imperil the 2018 strategic partnership, which promised $30bn of investment into the UK over 10 years.

Beyond the worrying indication that the government was effectively blackmailed to engage, the emails indicate that British officials supported the deal as they thought it might improve Saudi Arabia’s image in the UK – providing greater cover for the bilateral relationship.

The UK government’s interest in the Newcastle takeover suggests that it views sportswashing as a means to advance its own strategic interests and demonstrates the problem of solely attributing sportswashing to autocratic states.

Limiting the application of sportswashing conceals the benefits that accrue to Western states and helps to obscure their role in creating and now supporting regimes in places like Saudi Arabia.

By Tom Howe, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe. 

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