Greg Norman, the face of a controversial breakaway Saudi golf tournament, has downplayed the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying: “We’ve all made mistakes.”
The Australian long-time former world number one is spearheading the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, seen by rights groups and activists as another example of the kingdom trying to “sportswash” its human rights record.
Norman, 67, is chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, which is backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the body that bought Premier League football team Newcastle United last year.
Taking questions at a promotional event for the $255m (£207m) tournament on Wednesday night, Norman, known as “The Shark”, said: “This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights; talk about it, but also talk about the good that the country is doing in changing its culture.
“Everybody has owned up to it, right? It has been spoken about, from what I’ve read, going on what you guys reported.
“Take ownership, no matter what it is. Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, in a gruesome murder that shocked the world.
A US intelligence report released a year ago said Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, but the Saudi government has denied the crown prince was involved and rejected the report’s findings.
Norman said on Wednesday that he had not met Mohammed bin Salman, “but, at the same time, I do read that the Saudi government has made their statements and comments about it and they want to move forward”.
The retired Australian golfer was also asked for his reaction when he learnt that Saudi authorities executed 81 men on a single day in March.
“I got a lot of messages but quite honestly I look forward. I don’t look back. I don’t look into the politics of things,” he said.
“I’m not going to get into the quagmire of whatever else happens in someone else’s world. I heard about it and just kept moving on.”
The LIV Golf Invitational Series is due to start in June. Several top golfers have condemned those seeking to play in the Saudi competition.
Amnesty International released a statement last week saying: “We would urge all golfers tempted to play in Saudi-bankrolled tournaments to consider how sportswashing works and how they might break its spell,” after another golfer looking to play in the competition, Lee Westwood, said he wanted to join the league because of the wages.
In February, US golfer Phil Mickelson described Saudi Arabia’s government as “scary (expletive)”, even while he was in discussions to join the Saudi golf event.
“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” he said. “They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?
“Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse.”
Sports and entertainment events have formed part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy and improve its international reputation.
In October 2020, a coalition of human rights groups called for a boycott of a major women’s golf tournament being held in Saudi Arabia over concerns it was being used to “sportswash” Riyadh’s record on women’s rights.
“These sporting and entertainment events do not represent progress as long as they are not accompanied by deep and meaningful human rights reforms,” Ines Osman, director and co-founder of MENA Rights Group, told Middle East Eye at the time.
“As long as that’s not the case, they’ll remain a tool to whitewash, and ultimately normalise abuses.
“It is shameful that we have not seen more high-profile athletes refusing to attend events in Saudi Arabia.
“Many of them probably think they’re just there for sport [and money] and not ‘politics’, but ultimately their visibility gives them a platform that should come with some sense of moral responsibility.”-Middle East Eye