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‘I don't care': ‘Sportswashing' comments from Saudi crown prince spark anger from rights groups

Royal Court of Saudi Arabia | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
  • "If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing," Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with Fox News.
  • Human rights organizations immediately seized on the comments.
  • "We've now heard from the top that this is state policy," a director at Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lit up social media with his blunt response to accusations that his government is "sportswashing," or using sports to distract attention from its controversial human rights record.

Quite simply, he made it clear that he did not care.

"If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing," the de-facto Saudi leader said in an interview with Fox News that aired Wednesday night. "I don't care. I have 1% growth in GDP from sport, and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want."

Human rights organizations immediately seized on the comments, criticizing what some said was proof of a state policy of hiding human rights violations behind an expensive veneer of big-ticket sports acquisitions and tournaments.

"He's done more than say he doesn't care," Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch's director of global initiatives, told NBC News. "He's really endorsed the idea of sportswashing as a way of covering up the country's very serious human rights abuses. We've now heard from the top that this is state policy."

She added in a post on social media site X: "Huge investments in #sportswashing by #SaudiArabia+MBS won't cover up grave #HumanRights abuses: killing of hundreds of unarmed migrants, jailing women's rights advocates+ murder of journalist #JamalKashoggi."

A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, on October 8, 2018, demanding justice for missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, on October 8, 2018, demanding justice for missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. U.S. intelligence findings pointed to Mohammed bin Salman as having approved the murder, which he forcefully denies. His government says the act was carried out by rogue Saudi agents.

The group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing, made up of fans of the EPL soccer team Newcastle United, posted on X: "If MBS 'doesn't care' about sportswashing accusations why does he spend a fortune on PR & employs an army of bots & trolls to silence opposition?"

Saudi Arabia's massive sovereign wealth fund, the PIF, purchased Newcastle United in 2021 for a reported $409 million. Amnesty International called the takeover a "PR tool to distract from the country's abysmal human rights record."

Champion Team Captain Dustin Johnson of 4 Aces GC and caddie Austin Johnson celebrate on stage during the team championship stroke-play round of the LIV Golf Invitational - Miami at Trump National Doral Miami on October 30, 2022 in Doral, Florida.
Chris Trotman/liv Golf | Getty Images
Champion Team Captain Dustin Johnson of 4 Aces GC and caddie Austin Johnson celebrate on stage during the team championship stroke-play round of the LIV Golf Invitational - Miami at Trump National Doral Miami on October 30, 2022 in Doral, Florida.

Andrew Feinstein, an activist and author of the book "The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade," wrote on the platform X: "MBS claims not to care about sportswashing. We would expect nothing less ... Opposition to Saudi's extortionately expensive efforts to wash/launder its misogyny homophobia corruption & brutality is clearly angering him."

CNBC has reached out to the Saudi Foreign Ministry for comment.

The crown prince, in response to an interview question about the kingdom's human rights abuses, said that there are "bad laws" in the country he does "not like," but that he cannot interfere with the judiciary. Saudi observers and rights activists immediately rejected that assertion, saying that his near absolute power means he could change any laws he wanted to with the stroke of a pen.

Multi-billion dollar sports spending spree

The Saudi kingdom has in recent years made a series of high profile sports acquisitions, including recruiting soccer legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to its local teams with contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Other recent high-profile transfers include Chelsea's N'Golo Kante and Kalidou Koulibaly, Lyon's Moussa Dembele, and Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez.

Karim Benzema acknowledges the fans as they are presented to the crowd during the Karim Benzema Official Reception event at King Abdullah Sports City on June 08, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Yasser Bakhsh | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
Karim Benzema acknowledges the fans as they are presented to the crowd during the Karim Benzema Official Reception event at King Abdullah Sports City on June 08, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Massive Saudi sports investments have gone far beyond soccer to include boxing, golf, auto racing and more. In June, news of a surprise merger between Saudi Arabia's upstart LIV Golf tournament and the American PGA Tour sent shockwaves through the world of sports and angered many commentators, athletes, fans and even U.S. lawmakers.

The Saudi kingdom's multi-billion dollar investments in sports are part of a wider effort to transform the conservative Muslim country's image, attract foreign investment and diversify its economy away from oil.

The 38-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a series of liberalizing reforms since coming to power, allowing previously-banned things like women driving, movie theaters and concerts.

But the accusations of rights campaigners highlight the simultaneous crackdown on dissent and imprisonment of political activists.

Just in August, a 54-year-old Saudi teacher was sentenced to death over his activity on Youtube and X, formerly known as Twitter, that was deemed by the government to undermine or threaten the Saudi state.

Several female activists remain in jail with multi-decade long sentences for things like social media posts critical of the kingdom's laws.

Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia in 2022 oversaw the highest number of yearly executions in the kingdom in 30 years, with 196 people killed.

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