Saudi Arabia's move into the golf world will bring accusations of sportswashing, but the real issue is the future of freshwater in one of the world’s driest regions.
When one thinks of golf, the first image that comes to mind is acres of smooth green tees with soft rolling hills, and lakes. Certainly one of the last places that come to mind are arid landscapes.
But Saudi Arabia is trying to change that. The Kingdom recently concluded its third annual Saudi International golf tournament, one of three golf tournaments in the country, including the Aramco Saudi Ladies International and the Saudi Ladies Team International.
And it's only set to grow.
Naturally, golf, a lucrative sector of the tourism industry, is supposed to draw money and people into the Kingdom. But it carries significant social, ecological, and political baggage: golf is associated with the destruction of natural landscapes; exploitation of natural resources, like freshwater; ecological damage from natural habitat destruction, and use of fertilisers and pesticides; and pollution, not to mention the carbon footprint associated with large-scale international tourism and travel.
For a country that has all but squandered its natural freshwater sources - in about a generation at that - a sport requiring vast amounts of freshwater seems like a surprising and imprudent direction.
With very little annual rainfall, and rapidly shrinking groundwater and aquifer sources, the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have turned to desalination, the process of turning saltwater and wastewater into freshwater, to meet the majority of their potable water demands. Today, the Gulf region is home to 70 percent of all desalination plants in the world, which help produce about 80 percent of the total drinking water in GCC states.
For the wealthy countries of the Gulf, this costly option has been the chosen answer to their water woes. With the Red Sea at its west, and the Gulf to its east, desalination offers a virtually infinite supply of freshwater - or, at least, that’s how Saudi officials appear to be treating it.
Yet, this is not the case; desalination comes with a hefty - and potentially permanent - price tag.
First, energy-intensive desalination plants release a vast amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change.
Second, desalination produces excess brine - about 1.5 litres of brine for every 1 litre of freshwater produced - as well as toxic contaminants from the desalination process, which is usually dumped back into the ocean. When not done properly, it creates a high-salinity environment. Alongside increased temperatures in certain areas, this process decreases the oxygen in the water, killing marine life, and affecting the food chain.
The Gulf may already be heading toward “peak salt”, according to some experts: excessive evaporation, combined with brine discharge and the diversion and damming of rivers flowing to the sea have created a body that is highly saline.
Saltier water is both more difficult and costly to turn to freshwater.
“In time, it’s going to become impossible to use desalination in a way that makes economic sense,” anthropologist Gokce Gunel said. “The water will become so saline that it will be too expensive to desalinate.”
Saudi Arabia is aiming to push for a new culture of golf in the country, where the sport is not particularly popular, as a part of Vision 2030, an ambitious economic reform strategy to diversify the economy. By that year, the Kingdom aims to create up to a whooping 23 more golf courses, and host a total of four tournaments. There are also a few private courses, some of which are made from sand.
“We’re now in our third year of the tournament and in terms of strength of field and profile, we’re bigger than ever,” said Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of both Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation of Saudi International. “Getting as many eyeballs as possible on golf supports our long-term vision of getting Saudi Arabia firmly on the world sporting map - and unveiling the universal appeal of this special game to people here.”
It’s no surprise. After all, the Gulf kingdom has taken on an aggressive multi-billion dollar campaign to scrub clean its negative press image, particularly after the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khasoggi, by hosting large-scale concerts and other events with internationally-recognised celebrities, singers, and athletes. The Kingdom has also been accused of “sportswashing” in different fields.
And it appears to be working - for some at least.
Renowned golf champion and course designer Jack Nicklaus is designing a championship course for a private golf and country club near the capital city, Riyadh.
“The design will fully integrate the natural environment and the beautiful Qiddiya landscape, bringing together green spaces and mountainous terrain,” Nicklaus said.
Qiddiya is located in the desert.
The “green spaces” will likely have to be created - and maintained with transported freshwater.
English Golfer Paul Casey initially refused to play at the Saudi tournament citing Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. “I would be a hypocrite if I did that. Anybody who says sport isn’t political, that’s rubbish. Sport is very political. I’m glad I took a stance, more so if it highlights the issues within the region,” he said at the time only to join two years later.
“There’s not a country on the planet that meets every single rights of a child, not a single country on the planet. And so all you can hope for is that a country is on a path towards meeting as many of those as possible,” he said after.
However, other high-profile figures like footballer Christian Ronaldo snubbed the Crown Prince’s invitation to be a face for tourism in the Kingdom.
International rights watchdogs and women’s rights groups have criticised Saudi Arabia’s “image laundering”.
“Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said.
“So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government’s atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom’s strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s abuses.”