Reuters first reported on October 6 that Turkish police believed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
Just one day later, Turki Al-Slshaikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Sport Authority, announced that the top two players in men’s tennis, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, were scheduled to play each other in the King Salman Tennis Championship exhibition match in Saudi Arabia three days before Christmas.
As Karim Sidan wrote for Deadspin in February, Saudi Arabia started investing in sports in November 2016 specifically for public relations purposes, following in the footsteps of many autocracies trying to burnish a tarnished image.
This high-profile tennis exhibition comes on the heels of the kingdom’s investment in global soccer, a long-term deal with the WWE, and a new partnership with European tour golf.
“The Saudi government is aware of the domestic benefits and international prestige that can be reaped from a strong sports culture, and are willing to go to unprecedented lengths to seize those benefits,” Sidan wrote.
Over the past few weeks, horrific details have emerged about Khashoggi’s murder. While Saudi Arabia spent 18 days denying any involvement in the journalist’s death, they finally released a statement saying Khashoggi died in a fist-fight with Saudi officials at the Turkish consulate. But all indications are that this statement was misleading at best, and that in fact Khashoggi was brutally dismembered by Saudi officials with close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who Khashoggi had been critical of in his columns and reporting.
Companies such as CNN, the New York Times, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, Viacom, the Los Angeles Times and World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim have since withdrawn from a prominent conference in Saudi Arabia and spoken out against the Saudi regime’s actions.
But the sports world so far has maintained its ties to the kingdom. And while the WWE and European tour have at least said they are “monitoring” the situation in Saudi Arabia, Nadal and Djokovic have been completely silent.
The only comment both players have made about the event came days after it was announced, through promotional tweets. Djokovic said he was “[l]ooking forward to playing and visiting this beautiful country,” while Nadal added something very similar, tweeting, “Thanks for the invitation and looking forward to playing and visiting for the first time!”
Looking forward to playing and visiting this beautiful country. Thank you for the invitation, see you guys soon! https://t.co/0ZgSLnLgQu
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) October 8, 2018
Amnesty International warned Djokovi and Nadal that they were being used as pawns by the Saudi rulers, and urged them to at least speak out against the human rights abuses in the country — which include a devastating war in Yemen.
“It’s not for us to say which countries should and shouldn’t be hosting sporting competitions, but it’s also clear that countries like Saudi Arabia are well aware of the potential for sport to subtly ‘rebrand’ a country,” Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International told the Sunday Times.
“It’s up to Nadal and Djokovic where they play their lucrative exhibition matches, but if they go to Jeddah we’d like to see them using their profiles to raise human rights issues. Tweeting support for Saudi Arabia’s brave human rights defenders would be a start.”
Now, as previously mentioned, Djokovic and Nadal aren’t the only people in the sports world who need to step up. The WWE is in its first year of a 10-year deal with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which John Oliver recently described as “wall-to-wall propaganda.” Its next event is scheduled for November 2, a good six weeks before the tennis match. And Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus due to play Italian Suppacoppa in Saudi Arabia in January 2019.
But while most athletes rely on teams and leagues to schedule the games and tournaments they play, this is a voluntary exhibition match that is taking place during tennis’s off-season; there will be zero career consequences for either Djokovic or Nadal if they cancel this appearance.
Both reportedly are getting paid $1 million, which is no small sum. However, it’s also money they can both quickly make up — either through endorsements, other exhibitions, or prize money. Djokovic has earned $10.6 million so far in 2018, while Nadal has earned $8.6 million, and both have earned over $100 million in prize money in their careers.
It shouldn’t have taken Khashoggi’s murder for those in the sports, business and entertainment world to re-think their relationships with Saudi Arabia. But tardiness isn’t an excuse not to step up now, and silence certainly isn’t the answer.