It’s money versus morals for the world’s sporting bodies as Saudi Arabia becomes newest honeypot destination for Western interests
When the action starts will the world’s sports policymakers go missing or take a stand against authoritarian regimes?
“Going missing” is a metaphorical term in sport that is often applied to athletes who fail to deliver, especially during important contests. Off the field, however, several events over the last few years have brought the metaphor to life, with countless individuals relevant to sport literally having disappeared.
As English football team Wolverhampton Wanderers grow in confidence following their promotion to the Premier League, fans of the club should remain mindful of the fact that its owner (Chinese businessman Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun) went missing towards the end of 2015. So serious was this matter that at one stage company officials requested a suspension of trade in their respective Hong Kong and Shanghai-listed shares.
Guo subsequently reappeared, at which time it was explained that he had “been helping Chinese authorities”, a euphemism that typically means someone in business has incurred the wrath of state officials.
Guo clearly didn’t learn from his earlier experience, however, as during the summer of 2017, he was widely rumoured to have gone missing again amid suspicions that he was borrowing heavily from Chinese financial institutions.
Once more, Guo subsequently reappeared, although he had not been alone in his travails. Around the same time, sports investor Wang Jianlin (who at that point owned a significant stake in Spanish football club Atletico Madrid) was also reported missing. Stories spread that his passport had been confiscated by the Chinese government in light of concerns about his spending overseas. After some time out of the spotlight, and following his retrenchment from several investments (including Atletico), Wang too reappeared.
More recently, the disappearances of actress Fan Bingbing (apparently for reasons linked to taxation) and Interpol president Meng Hongwei (suspected of accepting bribes) have highlighted just how common “going missing” in China actually is. Yet it is not the only country in which the disappearance of important figures seems to be routine.
The mystery surrounding missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a case in point. Human rights activists have long claimed that the Saudi Arabian government has been involved in the disappearance of dissidents, despite the kingdom’s stated intention to become a more open, progressive nation.
As part of its modernisation process, Saudi Arabia is embracing sport. It is envisioned that the country will become a destination for major sporting events and a place to which sports tourists will travel, ultimately enabling the country to assume a position as a leading global sports nation.
As a symbol of these ambitions, one need look no further than Qiddiya – a new sports and entertainment mega-city that will dwarf similar developments elsewhere around the globe.
The prospect that one of the world’s richest countries will be spending heavily on sport has resulted in a feeding frenzy amongst Western organisations. From deals linked to Qiddiya through to contracts for creating Saudi’s sports strategy, some of the biggest companies in the world (often enthusiastically supported by their governments) have moved quickly to populate the kingdom’s sports landscape.
This has already resulted in sports such as boxing, wrestling, martial arts and motorsport making a beeline for Saudi Arabia, each drawn by first-mover advantage and the promise of significant revenues.
Football is part of this, with Western consultancies over-seeing flotation of the country’s professional clubs. Even Fifa is in on the action, with Saudi Arabia reportedly behind moves to fund a relaunch of the governing body’s Club World Club (CWC).
Ironically, many of the same organisations have clustered around China over the last four years, as the East Asian nation embarked upon the pursuit of a national vision for sport now strikingly similar to its West Asian rival’s vision. This has seen the same businesses chasing the same types of contracts awarded by the same types of public organisations.
And Fifa is again prominent, drawing substantial revenues from new sponsorship deals with a series of Chinese corporations. There are also rumours that China is working with Saudi Arabia to secure the rights to fund and stage Fifa’s new CWC.
All of which creates what seems to be something of a contradiction for the West in general, and a massive policy dilemma for Western sports decision-makers in particular. At the same time, East and West Asia are both a source of growth and revenue-generating potential, but also an existential, authoritarian threat to liberal democracies in Europe and North America.
Critics have frequently questioned relations between the likes of Fifa and Saudi Arabia, and sports fans often expect sports organisations to engage in political discourse. In the case of Qatar, concerns over its treatment of immigrant labourers have led to repeated calls for the hosting of sports mega-events (in Qatar’s case, the 2022 Fifa World Cup) to be assessed against a set of appropriately defined ethical standards.
In a recent article, Sloan Management Review notes, “Given how politically polarised the world has become, [political, social and environmental issues] can put business leaders in a bind.” Of course, this challenge affects not just business leaders but decision-makers in general. The article’s authors go on to explain that organisations can take a political stand at the risk of upsetting stakeholders and damaging their reputation, or they can remain silent and allow others to write the narrative.
This is the situation now facing the West, its sport governing bodies and corporations and, indeed, its whole conception of sport. As high-profile figures like Khashoggi and Meng disappear, policymakers need to decide how best to respond.
It’s a high stakes game, and one that potentially threatens the innumerable lucrative contracts now on offer in territories across the world. The question remains: when the action starts, who will take a stand and who will go missing?