Opinion: The LET event in Saudi Arabia was anything but "cool"

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Professional women's golf was played in Saudi Arabia for the first time with the LET's Saudi Ladies International at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club. But should professional golf tours play in a country which has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record?

Anthony Harwood, former Daily Mail Foreign Editor, doesn't believe so and explains why those playing in the Ladies European Tour event should have been less vocal in their support of Saudi Arabia.

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One word I definitely wouldn’t use to describe playing at a high profile sports event in Saudi Arabia would be ‘cool’.

Certainly not if it’s one of those glitzy tournaments where competitors are accused of ‘sportswashing’, namely helping a country wash away the stains on its reputation caused by terrible human rights abuses.

Charley Hull, one of England’s top female golfers, should be less wide-eyed about the countries she chooses to gush over when playing on the Ladies’ European Tour.

"It’s really cool to be here,” said the 24-year-old after arriving in Jeddah for this week’s inaugural Saudi Ladies International. "I like playing in the Middle East and we’ve got a great chance to inspire Saudi women to take up the game and play golf".

Growing the game in Saudi Arabia is a tired old theme which players on the men’s European Tour adopted to defend themselves when playing in the country earlier this year, with the notable exception of Rory McIlroy who stayed away, basically saying: ‘It’s the human rights, stupid’.

Graeme McDowell was victorious in Saudi Arabia early this year.

Helping little Saudi Arabian girls take up golf doesn’t really do much for the women’s rights activists still behind bars for calling for the right to drive and an end to the male guardianship system.

In fact, growing the game of golf is so far down the fairway when you consider that legally, from birth until death, a woman has to get permission from a man to do many things we take for granted.

Like getting married, living on her own and, yes, playing golf. I’ve no doubt there are some sporty minded Saudi fathers or husbands who would love for their wife or daughter to compete at sport.

But, I also know, there are many conservative-minded men who use the law to forbid such freedoms, repressing the wives and daughters over whom they exercise total control.

Meghan MacLaren has boycotted the Saudi Arabia event.

Meghan MacLaren was the leading English golfer on last year’s Ladies European Tour and at 26 is just two years older than Charley.

Yet she chose to boycott the LET event ‘based on what I think sport is being used to do in Saudi Arabia’.

She went on: "Based on the research or organisations like Amnesty International, I couldn’t be comfortable as part of that process.

"We take for granted a lot of choices and freedoms we have, but I try to make decisions based on who I am as a person, not just a golfer.

"It’s a huge tournament for us, but this to me is about more than just golf".

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By saying her decision is based on who she is ‘as a person, not just a golfer’ Meghan is disagreeing with all those people who say ‘I’m sportsman, not a politician’ as an excuse for competing in places like Saudi Arabia.

It is a principled stance from someone well aware that she is turning down the chance of getting her hands on a $1m prize fund in these Covid-straightened times when many golfers are having to take up part-time jobs.

Mel Reid says it wouldn't be morally correct for her to play in Saudi Arabia.

Another British golfer staying away is Mel Reid, 33, who came out as gay in 2018. Homosexuality is illegal In Saudi Arabia, ultimately punishable by death.

"I don’t think it would be morally correct if I played,” said Mel. "I don’t agree with a lot of the culture. It’s not something I want to be around, not something I want to risk".

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Posing for photos alongside the trophy is another English golfer, Georgia Hall, who talks as if she’s going on holiday somewhere new rather than helping a discredited regime cover up its abuses.

Georgia Hall after her opening round in Saudi Arabia.

"It’s actually rare to get a chance to come to a new country and play these days so it’s nice to get a chance to play somewhere different", she said

Well, Saudi Arabia certainly is different.

She, too, has also swallowed the game growing-line fed to her by the public relations people, enthusing: "Events like these can help grow the next generation of younger boys and girls here in Saudi Arabia and be inspired to get out and play".

Hull is ‘massively impressed’ with the course while Hall’s reference to the ‘massive’ tournament is presumably a reference to the very large prize fund.

Dame Laura Davies is playing in Saudi Arabia.

But what does the legend, Dame Laura Davies, now 57, make of it all?

As she prepared to tee off herself in the Saudi tournament she said of those who chose to stay away: "It’s their decision. I think they missed out. 

"You’ve got to move forward; there’s no point living in the past. I think if they had come, they might have enjoyed themselves".

Not sure what she means by ‘living in the past’. Does that mean that they shouldn’t dwell on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi because that was back in 2018, as was the jailing of women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul?

But she and her friends are still in jail to this day in jail today, and the Saudi-led war on Yemen which began in 2015 is still raging and now the world’s ‘worst humanitarian disaster’, according to the United Nations

In a letter to the golfers, Loujain’s sister, Lina, said: "I am begging you, as a woman, as a person of conscience and as a role model – please boycott the Saudi women’s tour event".

Not every golfing role model is a person of conscience when there’s $1m on the table, I suppose.

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