Solheim Cup stars set to compete in Saudi Arabia — where women fight for basic freedoms

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – European Solheim Cup stars Carlota Ciganda, Georgia Hall and Charley Hull plan to tee it up next month in back-to-back events in Saudi Arabia. The first women’s golf events ever held in the Kingdom will take place from Nov. 12-19 at Royal Greens Golf Club on the Red Sea Coast near Jeddah. The two events will have a combined purse of $1.5 million.

Ciganda, who tied for third on Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA, said she’ll go home to Spain for the first time since Christmas after this month’s LPGA Drive On Championship, a new event in Georgia, and then and take the six-hour flight over to Saudi Arabia.

Top male players drew criticism for teeing it up in the men’s Saudi event in 2019 and 2020, particularly in the wake of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

Dustin Johnson, who ultimately won the inaugural event, said, “It’s my job to play golf.” Justin Rose, who competed in 2019 but not in 2020, added, “I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer.”

While some of Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory laws against women have relaxed in recent years – women can now drive cars and travel abroad without permission from their male guardian – it remains one of the most gender-segregated countries in the world.

“Obviously we are going there and going to stay at a nice resort, and we’re not going to see much of Saudi, how the life is,” said Ciganda. “I don’t like to get into politics and all that. I’m just going to play a golf tournament, go there and try to win it.”

Mel Reid, a six-time winner on the Ladies European Tour who recently notched her first LPGA title at the ShopRite, said she doesn’t feel comfortable playing in Saudi Arabia but holds nothing against those who do. Two years ago, Reid publicly stated that she is gay and announced her role as an ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organization with a mission to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports.

Same-sex relationships are illegal in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t think it would be morally correct if I played,” said Reid. “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.”

Laura Davies made the cut at the KPMG but isn’t sure when she’ll compete again. She isn’t keen on playing with all the COVID-19 restrictions in place. As for Saudi, she has no issue with the LET hosting events in the Kingdom.

“I’d rather go that they’re trying to make changes than they’re just using us, type of thing,” said Davies. “You’ve got to make the first step. I think the women playing in Saudi Arabia can only be a good thing, and a lot of people might disagree with that.”

Hall, the 2018 AIG Women’s British Open winner, said she’s going to help showcase the Ladies European Tour. When asked if she thought the events would help facilitate change in regard to women’s equality in the region, Hall said “I think that it’s great that we have a women’s event, and I mean, I can’t really say on that, I’m not sure.”

A longstanding system lacking human rights

Young Saudis, including three women wearing the traditional niqab and black abayas, relax on the Corniche waterfront in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, appeared to be phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. But some feel the addition of sports events like two upcoming women’s events, are simply an attempt to whitewash the country’s image. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The male guardian system in Saudi Arabia means that legally, from birth until death, a woman must rely on a man – usually a father or a husband – to make certain decisions or approvals on her behalf.

For example, a woman can’t get married without permission, explained Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, who spoke with Golfweek by phone from Jordan. Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization that investigates and reports on abuses happening worldwide.

A woman must also receive approval to live on her own, Coogle went on to say. If she’s in a shelter or imprisoned, she won’t be released until her male guardian agrees to receive her, which in some cases might not happen.

Several of the courageous women who fought for the right to drive automobiles have been imprisoned since 2018. Players should be concerned about whether or not they are participating in a whitewash effort, said Coogle, given that these government-backed events are designed to improve the country’s image.

“The real story is that political repression in the country has never been worse,” said Coogle, who encouraged those who do go to speak out and call for the release of women’s rights advocates who are still imprisoned.

Change through sport, or is it?

A student (R) and instructor practice driving at the Jeddah Advanced Driving School at King Abdulaziz University the day after women are once again allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

There won’t be any fans at the Saudi events due to COVID-19 restrictions. Majed Al Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, said in a statement that both events would be broadcast live across the country in what will be “a watershed moment” for young Saudis.

There won’t be any Saudi pros or amateurs competing in the professional fields next month either because to this point, there aren’t any that are up to tour standard.

Golf Saudi aims to introduce more than 100,000 children to golf through schools programs by 2025 as well as create 300 corporate golf experiences and 100 urban golf activations. By 2040, the goal is to have one Saudi national member on the men’s and women’s European Tours as well as team representation in the Olympics.

It’s an aggressive sporting plan that does nothing to address the basic freedoms Saudi women lack. England’s Meghan MacLaren, a two-time winner on the LET, told The Telegraph back in January that she wouldn’t tee it up in Saudi Arabia due to concerns over the country “sportswashing” its human rights record.

“I’ve decided not to play based on what I think sport is being used to do in Saudi Arabia,” MacLaren told The Telegraph. “It’s far more complicated than any one individual, so it’s a personal decision and not something I would push onto anyone else. But based on the research of organizations like Amnesty International, I couldn’t be comfortable being part of that process.”

Putting players in a tough position

A view of the 18th green during the pro-am event prior to Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club on January 29, 2020 in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Playing opportunities have been exceedingly rare on the LET in 2020, making an offer from Saudi Arabia apparently too good for the tour to pass up. The LET halted play in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed in August with back-to-back events in Scotland that were largely filled with LPGA players, followed by tournaments in the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

There are four events remaining on the schedule for 2020, including the Omega Dubai Moonlight Classic, Andalucia Costa Del Sol Open de Espana, and the two events in Saudi Arabia.

The $1 million Aramco Saudi Ladies International will be the third highest-paying event on the LET schedule. Former No. 1 Stacy Lewis, who won the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open in August, said it’s unfortunate that players are put in this situation to begin with.

“That’s the world that we’re in right now,” she said. “How do you turn down $1.5 million? That’s the call that the LET has to make. Do I turn down $1.5 million, or do I give the girls an opportunity to play, knowing it’s not really right that they should have to make that call.”


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