Friday briefing: The next phase of Saudi Arabia’s ‘sportswashing’ project? Buying a whole game

In today’s newsletter: The Saudi government-backed LIV Golf has merged with the core professional golf tour – and it’s part of a bigger plan to launder the country’s reputation

Good morning. First up, some breaking news: Donald Trump has been charged over his retention of national security documents and obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them. Prosecutors have summoned the former president to surrender himself to authorities in Miami next Tuesday. The charges against Trump relate to alleged violations of the Espionage Act after classified documents were found at his Mar-a-Lago resort. More on that in the headlines … now on with our (somewhat fitting given the above) deep-dive topic for today.

Some people find golf gripping. Others struggle to see the appeal of hitting a small ball as far as you can, and then walking a long way after it. And then there are some who find golf so appealing that they will spend many billions of dollars to own it outright.

This week, Saudi Arabia bought professional golf.

The shock establishment of a new body to run the US and European golf tours, solely funded by the country’s vast sovereign wealth fund and ultimately headed by a Saudi businessman, follows months of bitter division within the sport, but is unlikely to resolve the drama anytime soon.

So why have they done it? “There’s no reason for Saudi Arabia to have any interest in the sport of golf,” says the Guardian’s golf correspondent Ewan Murray. “It’s the word we all use – sportswashing.”

Whether you are a fan of golf or couldn’t tell a mulligan from a divot, this matters, he says. I asked him why – and what could be next on the Saudis’ shopping list. That’s after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. US | Donald Trump just became the first former president in American history to face federal criminal charges, and he really might be going to jail, our Washington bureau chief, David Smith, has written overnight. Now that Trump has been criminally charged over his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, here’s a breakdown of what the case is about and why it is significant.

  2. France | Four children and an adult have been injured in a knife attack in Annecy, in the French Alps. At least three were in a critical condition in hospital. A British national was among the children injured, the UK foreign secretary James Cleverly said.

  3. Health | NHS leaders have blamed staff shortages on huge waiting lists which have reached another record high. Some 7.4 million people in England are waiting to start treatment as of the end of April. One leader urged the government to speed up publication of its long-awaited workforce plan, which has been repeatedly postponed.

  4. Unions | The GMB union has reluctantly withdrawn its attempt to win formal union recognition at Amazon’s Coventry warehouse, after it did not gain enough new members to take it past the necessary threshold of support. The union has accused Amazon of drafting in more than 1,000 extra workers to skew the decision.

  5. UK news | The UK government has rejected a request by Royal Mail to end Saturday deliveries. The postal company has said that a six-day service is financially unsustainable, and is struggling after an annual loss of £1bn driven by postal worker strikes and the longer-run drop in profitability of letter deliveries.

In depth: ‘The truth is, with bottomless pots of money, they can do what they like’

Ian Poulter at the 2023 LIV Golf DC at Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, US.
Ian Poulter at the 2023 LIV Golf DC at Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, US. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

“Why is [Saudi Arabia] spending so much money, billions of dollars, recruiting players and chasing a concept with no possibility of a return?” Jay Monahan, head of the PGA Tour, US golf’s organising body, asked last year. The answer was obvious, he implied: the country, which Monahan explicitly linked to 9/11, was obviously trying to distract everyone from its woeful human rights record by establishing LIV Golf, a new, breakaway league.

Well – what do you know. On Tuesday, Monahan was revealed as the head of a new body which will oversee elite golf in the US and Europe, incorporating the PGA and European tours and LIV, with one sole investor – Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Though Monahan is nominally the boss, he will answer to the Saudi chair of the fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan.

The alphabet soup of golf’s international governing bodies, and the intricacies of how they ran the sport, were of limited interest to non-obsessives until 2021, when the Saudi-backed LIV tour was launched.

The country had been trying to get involved in the sport’s mainstream but were rebuffed, says Ewan, “so they said, ‘Stuff you, we’ll set up our own thing.’ Then they threw hundreds of millions of dollars at it, and took some of the best players in the world.”

One of the defectors, six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, acknowledged the Saudis were problematical masters: “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” he said. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.”

And yet, he signed up anyway. His new bosses might not be nice but the money – hundreds of millions of dollars in his case – sure was.

Defectors were expelled from the sport’s mainstream, however, and for months the world of golf has been riven by acrimony, bitter litigation and fractured relationships.


So how did this week’s deal happen?

It certainly came as a shock, says Ewan, not least to Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the highest profile LIV refuseniks. The group of those in the know was kept so small, he says, that “five or six people have reshaped the future of elite golf”.

Ultimately, he says, the established tours realised that given the Saudis’ seemingly bottomless pockets, they could never hope to compete with them, and decided they had no alternative but to join them.

Or as an understandably miffed McIlroy put it at a press conference in Canada, “Honestly I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that this is what is going to happen. It’s very hard to keep up with people that have more money than anyone else.”


So what happens next?

Rory McIlroy, a notable critic of Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf.
Rory McIlroy, a notable critic of Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf. Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

A deal might be in place but do not expect harmony on the manicured fairways just yet, says Ewan. From the technicalities of scheduling tournaments to the toxic subject of how defectors might be readmitted, the practicalities of how the two sides can be merged are far from clear.

“There still has to be consequences to actions,” said an otherwise phlegmatic McIlroy. “The people who left the PGA Tour irreparably harmed this tour, started litigation against it. We can’t just welcome them back in. That’s not going to happen.”

And while it may be hard to summon the tiniest violin for the financial woes of some of the world’s wealthiest athletes, many of those who stuck with the PGA turned down quite boggling sums of money (a rumoured $700m in Woods’s case) to do so, and some may want compensation.


What next for the Saudis?

No doubt plenty more investment in sport. The country is already making significant inroads into football, buying Newcastle United in 2021, taking 75% control of the four biggest clubs in its home territory on Monday, and setting its sights on some of the world’s best players.

Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Saudi Pro League in January, and this week French stars Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kanté have been persuaded to move there – Lionel Messi turned down Saudi overtures and this week signed with David Beckham’s Inter Miami. He still remains a tourism ambassador for the kingdom, however. The country will sponsor this year’s women’s World Cup, despite its questionable record on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, and has set its sights on jointly hosting the men’s event in 2030, according to some reports.

It has won a place in the Formula One calendar, hosts major boxing bouts and wrestling events by the WWE – and is even moving into esports. On Tuesday, Andy Murray said he fully expected Saudi Arabia to set its sights on tennis. Would he play there if so? “I wouldn’t play, no.”

“The truth is, with bottomless pots of money, they can do what they like,” says Ewan. “It feels like if they set their sights on any sporting entity, they can take it. So I don’t know where that stops.”

What else we’ve been reading

The One World Trade Center and the New York skyline is seen in the background as a man jogs through the Liberty State Park.
The One World Trade Center and the New York skyline is seen in the background as a man jogs through the Liberty State Park. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Getty Images
  • Over the last few days much of the United States east coast has become engulfed in smoke that has turned the sky sepia and upended daily life. Carolyn Kormann’s dispatch for the New Yorker is a terrifying look into what will likely become a familiar event in years to come as the smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to drift south. Nimo

  • Dani Garavelli first reported on the murder of seven-year-old Nikki Allan 30 years ago – last month, a Sunderland man was finally convicted. For the London Review of Books, she has written a gripping account of the case that haunted her for decades. Esther

  • ICYMI: Aditya Chakrabortty tracks the ousting of Jamie Driscoll, the Labour mayor of North of Tyne, who was barred from running for office again because he appeared on a panel with filmmaker Ken Loach. Aditya’s column provides vital insight into how Labour party factionalism has become akin to “McCarthyism”. Nimo

  • In June 2021, having just recorded Canada’s highest ever temperature of 49.6C, the Canadian town of Lytton burned to the ground. This powerful new Guardian documentary records what happened to those who once lived there, many of them First Nations people forced to move from their ancestral lands. Esther

  • Have you ever listened to an album and immediately thought “nope”, only to come back to it weeks, months, sometimes even years later and realise that it is potentially the most perfect piece of music you’ve ever listened to? Eight Guardian writers who experienced this very phenomenon pick out the slow burn songs that crept up on them. Nimo


Lionel Messi holds the World Cup after winning the 2022 tournament.
Lionel Messi holds the World Cup after winning the 2022 tournament. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Football | It’s official: Lionel Messi beats Cristiano Ronaldo to greatest of all time status, according to data analysis. When the two great goalscorers were ranked using sophisticated models to evaluate their broader contribution to their team’s success, Messi was clearly superior, according to Dr Ian Graham, the outgoing director of research at Liverpool.

Tennis | Iga Swiatek will attempt to win her third French Open title in four years when the Pole faces Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic in Saturday’s final. On Thursday the unseeded Muchova upset second seed Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5, scuppering hopes of a rematch between the top two players. In the men’s, Casper Ruud impressively held off a late surge from an otherwise tired Holger Rune to reach his second consecutive French Open semi-final with a 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win.

Cricket | Australia took control of the World Test Championship final as India’s batsmen contributed to their own downfall – three of them bowled after leaving the ball. Australia reached a total of 469 and India ended the day on 151 for five, still 318 behind.

The front pages

Guardian front page, Friday 9 June 2023

Our Friday edition of the Guardian leads with “PM signs pact with Biden as hope of trade deal vanishes”. The Daily Telegraph has “Kyiv begins counter-offensive as western tanks hit the front line”. “Stabbed in their pushchairs” – the Metro covers the “horror in the playground” in Annecy, France. Likewise the Sun, with “Brit girl, 3 knifed in park”. The Daily Mail also has the “horror in the playground” as the front-page picture – the suspect is shown – while its splash is “Patients ‘have no right to know if doctor is trans’”. The Daily Express says “British girl, 3, knifed in park horror”. “Hero who fought to save the innocents” – the Daily Mirror shows a woman trying to get between the suspect and a pushchair. The i hasBritain and US rewrite the special relationship”. That gets the pic slot on the cover of the Financial Times which has as its lead “City regulator broadens probe into Odey firm after sexual assault”. The Times has “Mortgage deals pulled in rush to raise rates”.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

Janelle Monáe in New York this June.
Janelle Monáe in New York this June. Photograph: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Davina McCall’s Pill Revolution (Channel 4)
Navigating reproductive healthcare can be a thorny thicket; Black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts and waiting lists for Mirena coils are up to a year long. This one-off documentary looks at the current state of contraception in the UK, with McCall charming and smiley – but capable of shifting into a more serious mode. Leila Latif

Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure

For over a decade, Monáe (above) has been a purveyor of high-concept R&B. But on her fourth album, everything has changed. It takes 90 seconds for her to mention Japanese rope bondage and that’s the tone pretty much set, accompanied by reggae and dancehall. If it’s not always an unfettered joy, it’s a dramatic pivot unlikely to alienate existing fans. Alexis Petridis

War Pony
Actor Riley Keough establishes her film-making credentials with this terrific debut feature, co-directed with Gina Gammell. Set on and around the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, it’s a heartfelt and absorbing story about two teens from the Oglala Lakota community. They are not known to each other, but the drama lets us see how much life experience they share. Peter Bradshaw

Dreamtown: The Story of Adelanto
Widely available, episodes weekly
David Weinberg (the man behind the excellent The Superhero Complex) returns with a tale of eccentric characters, corruption and cannabis in California. When a hippyish figure strolled into the rundown prison town of Adelanto, he promised transformation, with a little help from weed. Weinberg documents the town’s rise and fall in style, with help from the locals. Hannah Verdier

Today in Focus

Prince Harry.

A prince’s day in court: Harry against the Mirror

Prince Harry became one of the most senior royals ever to give evidence in an English court this week. Jim Waterson reports from the high court in London where tabloid phone hacking was back under the microscope.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings on UK’s tradition of AI leaders – cartoon

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Adelina and Alan.
Adelina and Alan. Photograph: Adelina and Alan

After her relationship broke down in 2020 after a bad bout of Covid, Adelina joined a dating app where she met Alan, from nearby Milton Keynes. The pair exchanged messages for a few weeks, eventually agreeing to meet for a walk. There was an instant connection. They continued seeing each other through the rest of the year, going on more walks and even spending Christmas together. After Alan returned home though, Adelina began to feel extremely unwell again. As her symptoms progressively worsened she spent more and more time in and out of hospital - her doctor would eventually tell her that she had long Covid.

Even though Alan and Adelina had only known each other for a month, Alan continued to visit regularly and after a while basically moved in to care for her. His kindness surprised Adelina - she had expected him to leave but Alan says he loved their time together, especially on Adelina’s good days. Adelina has since gotten much better and recently proposed to Alan on a beach in France. The couple plan to move in together soon.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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