Will the Ladies European Tour's Saudi Ladies Championship be a vehicle for change in the Arab state and does it deserve a chance to prove us all wrong?
By Charlotte Ibbetson
With a prize fund of $1 million, the Ladies European Tour will head to Saudi Arabia from 19 – 22 March for the inaugural Saudi Ladies Championship. A milestone for the Kingdom and arguably a monumental breakthrough in women’s golf – the championship will be broadcast to millions of homes in more than 55 countries worldwide. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll unravel a world of scepticism and doubt.
And it really does pain me to write that. I lived in an Arab country. I spent almost four years living in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, so I understand what it’s like to live in a country that is hugely misconceived in the western world; a country that made me feel genuinely very welcome, happy and safe.
The Arab state of Saudi Arabia has been developing an increasingly high profile in sport around the globe; staging Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight boxing match last month and hosting the European Tour Saudi International this week. Rumours have even emerged over the past few days of a Saudi takeover at Newcastle United.
Saudi’s efforts have been branded as sportswashing at best – at worst a power tactic to distract from an unsavoury reputation of violating human rights. And that’s before you even scratch the surface of the Yemen crisis.
But money talks. For professional golfers, there’s no team to fall back on or long-term contracts – doing well in Saudi could set them up for the rest of the season, and who are we to deny them of that?
It’s no secret that the country is trying to diversify its economy away from oil - as are many others in the Middle East. Away from sport, the country has seen investments in tourism and events reaching the billions under the leadership of 34-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS; a progressive reformer modernising a deeply conservative country. And in golf, Troon has been commissioned to provide strategic insights into Saudi Arabia’s national golf development, proving their intentions to become big players in the golfing world.
If their intentions are genuine and this really is part of a plight to empower women in the region, then golf is one of the best vehicles through which to achieve that. This is a country that has only just permitted women to drive after all – it’s a huge step and one that should at least be given the chance to succeed.
There’s no doubt that the winds of change are blowing, I just hope it’s for all the right reasons.