Sportswashing: how three countries began taking over sport

Authors: Jack Maycock
  • Reading time: 10 min.
  • Posted on: August 22, 2022

This year, Qatar will host the Football World Cup — the most watched sporting event in the world, alongside The Olympics. Qatar’s relationship with FIFA was subject to scrutiny at the time, but over the next decade, numerous corruption scandals were exposed. Qatar’s human rights record is absolutely abysmal; Qatar is a hereditary monarchy, ruled by the House of Thani. Ruling the country under the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam — a traditional school of Islamic law whose strict practices are clearly distinct from what is seen across the majority of the Muslim world today.

As with any theocratic dictatorship, Qatar refuses to afford equal (or in many cases) basic human rights to women as well as to the LGBTQ+ community — with homosexuality still carrying a punishment of three years in Qatar’s one and only prison.

FIFA — whose role it is to ensure wide participation as possible within football — saw no contradiction awarding hosting rights to the Gulf nation, despite all of the above. Qatar’s suitability to host the tournament wasn’t just in question over LGBTQ+ rights. After their bid was successful, Qatar underwent an unprecedented building campaign, developing the vast infrastructure improvements required to host such an event. Despite their unimaginable wealth, Qatar used low-wage migrant workers from an array of countries to do the dirty work. Working in 50 degree temperatures and housed in appalling living conditions, at least 6,250 of these workers have died. The true number will be far higher such is the lack of transparency and accountability for who these workers were, and how they died.

“We all know our place in Qatar. We are the slaves and they are our masters. You cannot do anything here without your master’s approval,”

an anonymous Ghanain scaffolder told the Daily Mirror

Yet in hosting the World Cup, Qatar will align themselves with some of the biggest companies in the world; brands like Nike and Adidas, Football Associations from every continent, and players that are heroes to billions worldwide. Qatar is using the football World Cup to create a positive image of the country, legitimising their leaders to a global audience in spite of their dreadful human rights record. 

This is sportswashing, and they’re not alone…

What is sportswashing ?

a process or moment where a country with a bad human rights record attempts to use sport as a way to create positive PR to clean up its image and deflect attention away from its human rights record

– Amnesty International

Like its better-known cousin greenwashing, sportswashing is a recently created term to describe something that has been ongoing for decades. Even as far back as 1936, Germany took down many of their more xenophobic signs and advertisements ahead of the Berlin Olympics. The games contributed to the political cover Nazi Germany enjoyed throughout Europe until the late 1930’s — today, the practice is back in vogue.

 With globalisation leading to a much wider level of investment, the financialisation of global sport has been rapid. With the biggest companies from across the world vying to get involved, sport has become the perfect environment for oppressive dictatorships to clean up their reputation.

The worst culprits of this phenomena are three Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the aforementioned Qatar. Flush with petrodollars, they are provided just enough political legitimacy by their powerful European and American allies not to be ruled out by (admittedly greedy) sporting institutions. And once that hurdle is out of the way, it’s a wrap —  they financially out-compete almost all other countries that aren’t using the sport to clean their global reputation.

Their insidious slide into the world of football is perhaps the most documented. Since 2008, the Emirati royal family have owned Manchester City, the Qatari royals have owned Paris St Germain since 2011, and Saudi Arabia recently acquired Newcastle United through their Public Investment Fund. In addition to outright state ownership, companies with significant affiliations to these countries sponsor globally renowned clubs like Arsenal, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona. Even the prestigious Italian and Spanish Supercups have been hosted in Saudi Arabia in the last 5 years.

Taking over Sport

But sportswashing is not isolated to football: somewhat surprisingly, it is golf that has the longest history with the Gulf States, with lucrative events on the “European Tour’ being hosted in Dubai since 1989. However, last year Gulf money potentially changed the sport forever as Saudi Arabia sponsored a breakaway tournament. Enticed by prize money 4x that of the regular PGA Tour,  dozens of globally-renowned golfers signed up immediately and have since been banned from all PGA competitions.

Boxing has also slipped into this pattern, with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom promotions striking a deal that has seen British former World Champion, Anthony Joshua, fight for two World Titles in Saudi Arabia in as many years – with the latter taking place this weekend.

Formula 1, the kingpin of sporting glitz and glamour, have their fingers deep in the petrodollar pot. This year, four out of 22 races will take place in the Gulf, with Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia hosting the climax of the season with the last three races. Once again, the merging of spectacle, the biggest brands and manufacturers in the world, and numerous dignitaries and celebrities results in a PR dream for these countries. This is  especially if the race goes well and enters the sport’s history —as happened in the dramatic final race in Abu Dhabi last year.

Cricket, Horse Racing and many other sports have seen significant investment from these three counties as they begin to change the sporting landscape. Even before Saudi Arabia acquired Newcastle United, they had already spent an estimated $1.5 billion on sportswashing according to rights organisation Grant Liberty.

Awareness doesn’t always equal change

While the benefits to these countries seem clear, there is an argument that by hosting these events or owning these organisations, countries promote themselves into public consciousness, providing a space for scrutiny of their human rights records. This argument was articulated by Gary Neville as the Saudi takeover of Newcastle was confirmed:

In fairness to this view, there is a moment of intense scrutiny, as demonstrated by the clip above. It was also seen by the blank surprise on golfer’s faces when their integrity was put into question after joining the new Saudi breakaway competition. In the clip, Gary Neville says that from his perspective, he would rather have these countries at the table so they can be held accountable, rather than not at all. This view is underpinned by three assumptions:

1) Sporting institutions are the right people to hold countries accountable. Given the most powerful countries in the world struggle to keep the Saudi’s or Emiratis on a leash, it is highly unlikely that a telling off from the Premier League would be taken very seriously.

2) Scrutiny will be sustained. Gary Neville used the example of Manchester City to reinforce his point that sport can provide the scrutiny for change. Yet after the UAE took over the club, their human rights record got worse over the following decade as their geopolitical ambitions increased from their rising legitimacy, due in part, by their ownership. In this time, the UAE tortured dissedents at an increasing rate, became more brazen in their collaboration with salafi groups connected to Al Qaeda and ISIL. Worse still, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, they spent the last decade bombing schools, open-air markets, and funerals in Yemen. By fuelling instability and civil war, while cutting off humanitarian aid, they’ve created — what the UN has repeatedly called — the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Over 4 million people are internally displaced, with 5 million on the brink of famine. Since the initial takeover, these issues have barely been raised in any meaningful way by those within football — including Gary himself.

3) Sporting institutions are primarily concerned by human rights. Look at the partnerships they make, football is now littered with shady sports betting companies from abroad, F1 advertise their NetZero by 2030 goal on the same graphic they highlight their Saudi Aramco race sponsorship. Unless the attention seriously damages their reputation, most sporting institutions do not care. Events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further prove this point. An illegal act that was reported across the world, leading to mass attention and pressure — sporting bodies took action against Russia. For some at least, this appeared to be primarily out of fear that sustained media attention would be too damaging. For example, FIFA refused to ban Russia from the World Cup on February 27th, two days after Kyiv was first bombed. Two days later and after intense pressure, they banned them.

How can we stop it ?

Mobilise people to create pressure. Looking at how pressure was applied to get Russia suspended from the majority of sports (including football, F1, boxing and golf), and try to replicate it as closely as we can. It’s tough without a significant event to catch public attention or a government who wants to have the public conversation, but if nothing is done, sports will change forever — becoming further corporatised and less for the fans that built them. As they shift sporting landscapes, they become more influential and less accountable.

We’re already so far down the line that in order to create change, there realistically needs to be a significant moment where everyone sees a sport draw a red line under what is and isn’t acceptable. We need minimum standards for global sports bodies on who they partner with, remediation for those impacted by the migration sponsorship schemes practised in these countries and a serious conversation within sport about where the red line should be. The controversy and subsequent abandonment of the European Super League showed that it is possible to take on powerful interests and win — but this can only come from people-power. 

Nobody wants to be attached to dictators, but in order to get people to take action, we need to connect certain dots for them. We need to show people that this isn’t just about the World Cup in Qatar, or an Anthony Joshua fight in Saudi Arabia, it is about these countries using a wide variety of sports to integrate and normalise their country, as they continue to oppress their citizens and commit war crimes abroad. Otherwise, they will continue to gain power and commit further crimes against their own people and abroad, all while fundamentally changing the structures of how individual sports operate — almost certainly not in the interest of the fans.