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“Money Has Won”: Saudi Rights Activist Says PGA-LIV Golf Merger Gives MBS More Power & Influence

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We speak to Lina Alhathloul, the sister of a Saudi dissident who was jailed and tortured, about how the kingdom is using its oil fortune to reshape its image by taking over the world of professional golf with the merger of its own LIV Golf and the PGA Tour. This comes after President Biden pledged to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Lina Alhathloul discusses Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its latest diplomatic moves with regional and international powers, including its reestablishment of ties with Iran.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

On Monday, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal opened a probe into the Professional Golfers’ Association of America merger of their PGA Tour with the Saudi LIV Golf Tour. The merger came as a shock to much of the sports world, as the PGA spent months trying to undermine LIV by banning golfers who joined the Saudi venture from participating in PGA events. Critics say it’s the latest example of “sportswashing” to gain cultural and corporate influence by a country accused of massive human rights violations. Senator Blumenthal chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations. In letters to PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and LIV CEO Greg Norman, he noted Saudi Arabia’s, quote, “deeply disturbing human rights record at home and abroad.”

This comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Saudi Arabia last week meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto head of state, in Jeddah. As a presidential candidate, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over its human rights record after the assassination of the journalist, The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

For more on all of this, we’re joined in Brussels by Lina Alhathloul, head of advocacy for an independent nonprofit group that works to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia. She is the sister of the jailed Saudi feminist activist Loujain Alhathloul.

Welcome to Democracy Now! If you could pronounce your name for me? I’m sorry that I didn’t pronounce it correctly, and that’s very important.

LINA ALHATHLOUL: No worries at all. I’m Lina Alhathloul. And thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you so much for joining us. Can you talk about what in the sports world, and even outside of that, is so significant, this joining of what — if you could explain what Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf is, with the PGA Tour, and the complete turnaround of the PGA Tour, condemning Saudi Arabia for the last year, talking about its human rights abuses, and now joining in this golf alliance?

LINA ALHATHLOUL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we’ve been following this story for over a year now, and human rights and whitewashing was the main point that people were discussing. And what we see now is that money has spoken. Money has won.

And basically, what is happening is that Saudi Arabia is not only whitewashing its image by investing in sports and by infiltrating this industry, it is, in the long run, also very dangerous, because once, you know, we pass on from soft power — that is, Saudi Arabia buying a new image by pretending it is opening up, and that they’re hosting sports events now — afterwards, in the long run, they will have the money. They will have control. They will have influence in many sectors. And this is where it’s getting really dangerous. So, I think it’s not only about whitewashing its image. In the long run, it’s also about control and influence in many sectors, including the sports sector.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the huge rise even of executions in Saudi Arabia? Amnesty revealed that they tripled between 2021 and 2022, and yet the world hears nothing about this.

LINA ALHATHLOUL: Yes. Thank you very much for this question. And I think it’s very related to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. When Biden was saying that Saudi Arabia was a pariah and that they won’t go back to business as usual with Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and then they still go for realpolitik and, you know, for U.S. interests, they go to Saudi Arabia and they face MBS, what happened afterwards, actually just afterwards, is a mass execution of 81 people in one day. This year now we have, unfortunately, 51 — 52 people have been executed, and we’re only in June. So, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has deteriorated after MBS has been rehabilitated, including with Biden and Blinken’s visit, because what Saudi Arabia understands or how it interprets these visits is that it is a green light for them to double down on repression, that if they won’t be held accountable, although they’ve been called by the U.S., their biggest ally, as a pariah, and they still have — they’ve been still — MBS has been granted immunity or impunity in the U.S., so they know that now nothing will stop them, that they have been rehabilitated.

And even worse than that is that they can, you know, not only double down on repression on Saudi people, they will even show that their power now — that they’re so emboldened and so empowered that they can target U.S. citizens. And that is the case of Saad Almadi, who has been arrested in Saudi Arabia for tweeting. He’s been sentenced to dozens of years in prison. At the end of the day, now he has been released, because there has been a huge campaign against this sentence, but he is still on a travel ban in Saudi Arabia. So, a U.S. citizen that is more than 70 years old is on a travel ban in Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. cannot do anything to bring him back home. You know, we see that Saudi Arabia has felt emboldened by these shortsighted policies of the U.S. and for the lack of strong stands regarding human rights with the Saudi government, and MBS specifically.

AMY GOODMAN: Lina, can you talk about your sister, what’s happened to her, where she is now, if she’s — and then talk about the broader issue of women’s rights and human rights in Saudi Arabia?

LINA ALHATHLOUL: Yes. Thank you, Amy. So, my sister, Loujain Alhathloul, was — unfortunately, she can’t be anymore a human rights activist. She was the leader of the Women to Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia. So, before 2018, women could not drive in Saudi Arabia. And they were, and they still are, subjected to the male guardianship system, meaning that us, as Saudi women, we are considered as minors ’til the end of our lives. Every important decision of our life has to be approved by our male guardian, who is our father. Then, when we get married, it is our husband. And sometimes it even becomes our son. So, in that context, my sister was arrested many times, because she was the leader of the Women to Drive campaign and also campaigned against the male guardianship system.

But, you know, what is very ironic is that her last arrest, in 2018, was at the exact same time when the Saudi government was about to announce that they’re finally allowing women to drive. So, when the world was applauding MBS and the government as reformers, as changing the country and as opening it up, they were actually arresting the very feminists who have been fighting for it for years. My sister was arrested in 2018. There was a huge defamation campaign against her on Saudi media, with her picture under where it was written “traitor,” that she’s in a foreign of agent states, without really stating which state she was an agent of. And she was forcibly disappeared for a long time. And then we found out that when she was forcibly disappeared, she was in a torture facility, a torture center, being tortured by Saud al-Qahtani, Mohammed bin Salman’s right-hand man. And later on, she received her official charges, and she was actually explicitly charged with her activism, and including being in contact with Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the U.K. diplomats and EU diplomats, which means that Saudi Arabia, when it was touring the world, being applauded for reforming, was actually sentencing its own citizens for being in contact with what we thought were allies.

So, she was then sentenced to five years and eight months, but released on probation in February 2021. She is now on a travel ban, meaning that she cannot leave Saudi Arabia. And she lives — I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but this is the situation she has been targeted with Pegasus after her release, which is an Israeli spyware, a zero-click Israeli spyware, meaning that you don’t have to click anything on your phone, and you are still hacked, and they can see everything on your phone. So, she’s been surveilled. She feels — you know, of course, she feels surveilled. And what is important to note is that my whole family is on a travel ban, meaning that there are threats of arrest and that they’re trying to silence even the relatives of activists.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 10 seconds, but your response to the meeting of Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and what came of that?

LINA ALHATHLOUL: Well, I think it’s very clear. My message is that we have warned that without strong human rights conditions, to rehabilitate MBS or to go back to business as usual with Saudi Arabia won’t only harm Saudi people, but it will backfire. Emboldening someone like MBS, who has imprisoned the prime minister of a sovereign state, Lebanon, and who has started the worst war, Yemen, will backfire. So, the U.S. should stop thinking about shortsighted policies and start thinking about their long-term strategies. And emboldening MBS will only feed a monster that will be unstoppable in a couple of years.

AMY GOODMAN: Lina Alhathloul, we want to thank you for being with us, head of advocacy for the independent nonprofit group that works to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia, sister of Saudi feminist activist Loujain Alhathloul. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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