Why this week’s Euro tour event in Saudi Arabia is causing so much controversy

January 28, 2019

Four of the top five players in the world will head to Saudi Arabia this week for the debut of a new European Tour event: The Saudi International powered by SBIA, which will be held at the newly-opened Royal Greens Golf and Country Club. Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed are among those heading to the Euro Tour this week. Here’s what you need to know about the tournament, why it has become such a hot-button topic and what players have said on the matter.

The Saudi International

The Saudi International powered by SBIA kicks off Thursday, Jan. 31, in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia, at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club. The golf course was officially opened in 2018 after years of planning and is a central feature in a Saudi development that is the first golf community of its kind. While work on the course began in the mid-2000s, progress was halted in 2008 and did not resume until 2014 before its grand opening last year.

The event, with its $3.5 million purse, is one of six tournaments to be played on the Arabian Peninsula, according to Euro Tour executive director Keith Pelley, who has said a seventh could be added in the future.

Royal Greens Saudi Arabia
The par-3 16th overlooks the Red Sea and is Royal Greens’s signature hole.

Why it’s controversial

While many international golf tournaments take place in countries with dubious human rights records, Saudi Arabia has come under particularly intense examination since the October killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had spoken out against Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington Post columns. Khashoggi, a resident of the United States who had traveled to Turkey, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul after agreeing to meet there. Turkish officials as well as intelligence agencies from around the world (including those from the United States) have concurred that the crown prince was likely responsible for ordering the killing and dismembering of Khashoggi. While the U.N. continues to investigate, the brazen act of violence against a journalist led to widespread condemnation of the Saudi government in recent months.

Who’s in the field

It’s a star-studded list. There’s World No. 1 Justin Rose, fresh off another win at the Farmers Insurance Open. Bryson DeChambeau won the Dubai Desert Classic this weekend and is in the field as well. They will be joined by Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and more.

Who’s not in the field

Paul Casey, a UNICEF ambassador, spoke out against the event last week and confirmed his intentions not to attend. Last fall, Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a $3.3 million appearance fee, the largest of his career, and declined his invitation to the event. His agent did not comment on why Woods had declined the invitation. Woods hasn’t played an overseas event besides the British Open since the 2017 Dubai Desert Classic, where he withdrew after the first round.

What players have said

Justin Rose brushed off the controversy in his winner’s press conference at the Farmers Insurance Open. “Yeah, sure, politics. I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer. There’s other reasons to go play it. It’s a good field, there’s going to be a lot of world ranking points to play for, by all accounts it’s a good golf course and it will be an experience to experience Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Justin Rose Saudi Arabia
Justin Rose wasn’t eager to dive into politics after his win at the Farmers Insurance Open.

That echoed the sentiments of Dustin Johnson, who told the AP his reasoning for playing earlier this month. “Obviously, that was a concern with our team,” he said. “I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play. It’s my job to play golf. Unfortunately, it’s in a part of the world where most people don’t agree with what happened, and I definitely don’t support anything like that. I’m going to play golf, not support them.

“I’m not a politician. I play golf.”

DeChambeau kept his comments to golf, too. “I think any time we’re trying to grow the game and expose the game in a positive way, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. Nor would Koepka dive any deeper. “I’m not going to get into it. It’s going to be an unbelievable field of golf there. Hopefully, you can spread some goodwill through golf when you’re there.”

Casey explained his reasoning last month while acknowledging the grey areas of other host sites. “There are a lot of places in the world that I have played and continue to go, which you could question … some human rights violations that governments have committed,” he said.  “I thought I’d sit this one out.” He reconfirmed his absence in an Instagram post.

Pelley and the European Tour have lessened their outward excitement about the event in recent months. After crowing about the exciting possibility of bringing golf to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the tour left the Saudi event off its season-opening press release.