Young Professionals Briefing Series: Investing in the Game: Is it Sportswashing?

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Washington Director, Human Rights Watch; CFR Member

Senior Research Scholar, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University; Non-resident Senior Fellow and Chair of the Economics and Energy Program Advisory Council, Middle East Institute; CFR Member


Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Zivvy News; CFR Member

Young Professionals Briefing Series

Panelists discuss the unprecedented investment in international sports by Gulf nations, the phenomenon of “sportswashing” in the region, and the political, economic, and human rights implications of those campaigns.

BODURTHA: Well, good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Young Professionals Briefing Series. Thank you for joining us tonight at the Council on Foreign Relations as we kick off a new program season.

I’m Nancy Bodurtha. I’m the Council’s vice president for meetings and membership. And on behalf of our president, Mike Froman, and our Board of Directors, it’s my privilege to welcome you to the Council this evening. It’s terrific to see such a dynamic group here in person, and I understand that there are over two hundred who have registered to join us this evening via the miracle of Zoom.

For those of you who are new to the Council, I want to just offer a quick overview of what the organization is and what we do before we turn to our program this evening, which of course is the panel discussion on sportswashing. So the Council is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher. The Council was founded just over a hundred years ago in the aftermath of World War I. The guiding purpose of the Council then, as it is now, is to foster and inform debate on America’s role in the world. And we do this through our publications, including Foreign Affairs magazine; the books and policy reports produced by the experts in our think tank; and the rich array of content that you can find on the Council’s award-winning website,

We also do this through a multitude of convenings. The Council hosts hundreds of events, large and small, each year that bring together experts and thinkers not just from the policy world, but also from the private sector, media, academia, and the nonprofit sector to examine a range of regional and functional issues from very traditional areas of national security to things like global health, emerging technology, climate change, global economic competition, and beyond. The video, audio, and transcripts of all on the Council—on-the-record Council meetings can be found—also can be found on So on those evenings when you can’t find anything to watch on Netflix, you can always tune in to a Council video.

The Council’s an amazing resource, both for the content that we produce but also because of the extraordinary people who gather here. And that includes all of you this evening. Council convenings offer unparalleled opportunities to make professional connections and to engage with individuals who may prompt you to think about an issue differently or inspire you in some important way.

Tonight we are joined by CFR term members and also young professionals. The term members are rising foreign policy leaders who are the—who are between the ages of thirty and thirty-six when they apply for a five-year membership term. And for any of you who are aspiring term members, there’s information about that application process on the website. Also, for the young professionals, you all have an orange dot on your nametag. The term members who are here have a blue dot on their nametags, so seek them out during the reception and ask them about their experience.

The young professionals are a cohort of individuals who don’t yet meet the age requirement to apply for term membership but have strong professional interests in international affairs and an interest in engaging with the Council. We organize approximately one young professional event a month. We also send out a monthly newsletter that’s dedicated to the young professionals. That’s a roundup highlighting Council events, publications, podcasts, and more.

Turning to this evening’s program, we’re going to have a panel discussion for about thirty minutes followed by thirty minutes of Q&A, which is your opportunity to raise your hand and engage in the conversation. And that’s true for those of you here in the room but also everyone who’s joining virtually; we’ll be able to see your hands raised on Zoom. And for the group here in Washington, there will be a reception after the panel. This is a terrific opportunity to meet one another and the CFR staff who are here tonight, including Sam Dunderdale, who’s here at the side of the room. Sam helps lead the Term Member Program. Carrie Bueche, who I think gave the housekeeping announcements earlier, is our meetings director here in Washington. So I hope that you will take an opportunity to say hello to us afterwards. We look forward to meeting you.

And now I’m going to turn the proceedings over to our presider, a CFR member and alumna of the Term Member Program, Elise Labott. Elise is the founder and editor-in-chief of Zivvy News and she’s a senior adjunct professor at the School of International Service at American University. Elise, take it away.

LABOTT: Thanks so much, Nancy. And thank you all for being here.

I’m just going to add a little word to tag on what Nancy said. I was a term member and I also took—I think I came out of the womb, like, interested in international affairs. And so I was—when I moved here in my twenties to Washington, I took part in the Young Professionals Program and then I was a term member, and now I’m a lifetime member. And it really has been one of the most—as I tell Nancy all the time, one of the most important communities and membership that I—that I have in my life. And it’s—I really encourage you to get more involved and continue to apply for the term membership and take part in these briefings because you really do get so much wisdom. There are a lot of—events in Washington are at dime a dozen, but this is a really special group and a special community.

So I’d like to thank you for coming. Welcome to today’s meeting, “Investing in the Game: Is it Sportswashing?” As Nancy said, I am Elise Labott, founder and editor-in-chief of Zivvy News, which is a platform for young people like yourself—you’re probably a little bit more sophisticated than our typical audience—but really to get them interested in news. And I’m a senior adjunct professor at American University. I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

I’d like to introduce my panel. Sarah Yager is the Washington director at Human Rights Watch and a CFR member. And Karen E. Young is a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a nonresident senior fellow and chair of the Economics and Energy Program Advisory Council at the Middle East Institute, and she’s also a CFR member.

Today’s meeting, as we discussed, is on the record. And we’ll just get it started.

I want to talk—start by talking about a definition of sportswashing, which has, you know, been—you know, Norway, I think, first introduced the actual term. And it’s basically—in effect, it’s bankrolling big-name sports events in order to distract from a poor record on human rights or other bad policies, right? So it’s not just human rights. It could be a lack of democracy, which in effect is a—is a lack of human rights. But it isn’t a new problem, right?

Let’s start with you, Sarah. I mean, you know, we can think back to the 1936 Olympic Games—

YAGER: Well, not personally.

LABOTT: Not personally—(laughter)—but we can look—we can look back. And the 1936 Olympics was called the Nazi Olympics because this was really—there was a lot of, obviously, criticism of the Nazi regime, and you know, people were calling for boycotts. And Hitler said, no, this is going to be wonderful. And in effect, it was really just kind of—we would call it whitewashing, but sportswashing the Nazi regime.

YAGER: Yeah. So this has happened throughout history. 1936 is a good place to start. I will not go through all of the Olympics and FIFA World Cup games that have included sportswashing, but certainly we’ve seen it really recently in the Qatar World Cup, obviously. We can talk about that. We can talk about Russia’s Olympics in Sochi.

I will say when I started at Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago I had been working in armed conflict for a long time, really devastating stuff, but I started at Human Rights Watch right before the Beijing Olympics. And being at Human Rights Watch is a dream. It is also extraordinarily depressing. Nothing is sacred. So I was so excited for the Olympics—yay, this is the one thing where I don’t have to think about human rights; I can just cheer on the athletes—no. My colleagues immediately said there are so many problems with this Olympics and China is sportswashing all of these human rights abuses—lots of slave labor, basically; lots of displaced people; so many human rights abuses that were just pushed under the rug.

So this sportswashing is becoming more and more prominent, and I assume we will be talking quite a lot about Saudi Arabia as well, which—the Middle East investing in sports in order to look better on the world stage is something that affects Washington as well, with Qatar recently investing in the Washington Wizards and Capitals.

LABOTT: Yeah. We are going to talk about Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and really this Middle East kind of investment. But I will say when we had the Beijing Olympics it wasn’t just about Olympics, right? There was kind of, Karen, real attention to the human rights issues—the Uighurs, should China be hosting these Olympics. As much as it was, you know—you know, an opportunity for China to put forward its—its, you know, best foot forward, it was also a time where people were really paying a lot of attention to the bad parts of China’s human rights record.

YOUNG: I’m glad you started the conversation with a question on definitions, right? So, I mean, describing the Olympics and the host countries of the Olympics is a different thing than how we traditionally think about, you know, why an individual or a government or a government asset—a government-related entity—might want to get into the sports business, right? And I think those are two very different kinds of things.

LABOTT: That’s an interesting point. So, you know, countries, you know, campaign to have these events. There is a question as to whether they should be given—

YOUNG: Because they’re members of organizations—

LABOTT: Right.

YOUNG: —in which they have a right.

LABOTT: To sponsor an event, right?

YOUNG: And we do know that some of these organizations, those charges of corruption certainly in FIFA and the Olympic Committee. But you make a good point that it is different than kind of what we’re seeing in the Middle East right now about these massive investments to make the countries look—you know, to maybe deflect from some of the human rights.

So I challenge that question, too, right?


YOUNG: I mean, it’s certainly true that wealthy people like to buy sports teams because it’s a trophy asset, right? And we don’t think of buying a football team or buying a basketball team as something that’s investment grade. Generally, people lose money on these projects. (Laughs.)

But the other issue which you rightly raise is when a sovereign entity, particularly a sovereign wealth fund, decides to invest in the sports business. And we hear this a lot in the Gulf states; you mentioned, UAE, Qatar, and Saudi right now. And our bias is that this is about us. This is about an influence operation for a U.S. or Western audience.

LABOTT: Exactly.

YOUNG: And I would push back on that a little bit. I don’t think that’s necessarily always the case. I think the audience for many of these investments is actually a domestic audience. It’s an effort to say: Look, we’re here. We’re present. We’re part of a bigger community. And this is for you. Certainly in the Saudi case, the massive investments into sports is also part of a fitness imperative because the cost of health care is exorbitant for the government to take on for its citizens. It’s also, you know, a liberalization of a social space to get people more active to go to tourism and sports entertainment events.

LABOTT: And a—and a diversification.

YOUNG: Yeah. It’s about money.


Sarah, I mean, you know, Karen makes a good point because, you know, a lot of the investments were made by—and let’s just set the scene here, OK? Saudi Arabia has spent at least six, six and change billion in sports deals since early 2021, more than quadruple the previous amount over the last six years. And that’s just Saudi Arabia. They bought Newcastle United, one of the top England soccer teams. We’ll call it soccer, not football. You know, we’ll talk about the golf—the LIV Golf series. We call it “Liv” or “L-I-V”? Anybody know? Let’s call it “L-I-V.” (Laughter.)

Anyway, but I will say if you look at MBS’s—the crown prince’s Vision 2030, which was this massive reform re: diversification, program for youth for really changing the kind of social sphere of the country, sports and investing in sports—and not just sports, but entertainment, concerts, the arts—it was part of this. So a lot of people have said, oh, this is really to whitewash or sportswash the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but this was really part of the plan all along.

YAGER: Yeah. This was part of the plan. And I will agree that the domestic audience is a—is a big audience for this, but I will say that the domestic audience in dictatorships has little to no say about what is actually being invested and where. And you’ve got investments in women’s sports, Saudi sponsoring the Women’s World Cup, when women in Saudi Arabia are discriminated against, can’t travel without asking their fathers or husbands.

LABOTT: I’m going to—I’m going to challenge you on that because over the—and this is something, like, when we talk about Saudi Arabia, it’s really difficult because on one hand we know that there are a lot of human rights abuses, but we also know that there have been reforms. And actually, now women are, like, starting to get some more freedoms in the country, and actually there are a lot more women in sports. And the women—I think the women did play in the World Cup.

YAGER: The male guardianship laws were just legislated—made into law—in the past years. There are reforms, and I think MBS puts those out there. We have—I mean, the human rights abuses that we could go through for Saudi Arabia—

LABOTT: No doubt.

YAGER: —far outweigh any of the reforms.

But, look, there are three buckets of human rights abuses that happen with these sports events.

One is the domestic abuses. We at Human Rights Watch and others try to shine a—try to use these sports events to shine a spotlight on those human rights abuses.

But there are massive human rights abuses that occur in the leadup to these sports events because they need stadiums and they need—there are thousands of migrants that were killed by putting together the Qatar World Cup over twelve years. There are lots of other human rights abuses that we could discuss there. In the Rio Olympics, there were 77,000 people displaced. This is a matter of life and death, actually, when these sports are held.

And then the third bucket is rights that are infringed upon while the event is happening. So, in Qatar, journalists were shut down if they wanted to look at anything that did not have to do with the Olympics. LGBTQ—

LABOTT: During the World Cup, during the—

YAGER: I’m sorry. During the World Cup.

LABOTT: No, that’s fine. Last year’s World Cup.

YAGER: LGBTQ athletes were very worried about going into the country.

LABOTT: Right.

YAGER: These are the kinds of things that are concerns while these sports events are going on.

LABOTT: Right.

Let’s talk about Qatar. You know, obviously, the 2022 World Cup, they spent $220 billion in infrastructure projects—new rapid-transit systems, luxury accommodations—and they also started paying these athletes to come and kind of promote the country. And there was this whole kind of media operation where they’re not just funding the sports activity, but then they’re sponsoring—they’re paying for the media activity. So then the content and the, you know, promotion that is coming out of there is necessarily positive. They call it laundering. So it’s not just that they’re putting forward the sports itself as an example of, you know: Look at this brighter face of Qatar. We don’t discriminate against women. We’re pro-LGBT. We’re—we don’t—we don’t oppress domestic workers. We’re just a great country that loves football. That’s kind of not only are they putting the sports forward as that, but then they’re creating this alternative narrative by actually creating the content that goes out surrounding the media.

YOUNG: So the thing about the sports industry is that when you are—I mean, Saudi Arabia has spent almost $750 million in hiring players for its football league.

LABOTT: Right.

YOUNG: That’s advertising. That’s an advertising budget. Yes, you are asking a player to come. And because that gets people’s attention, fans from Mexico, from all over the world who are, you know, big football fans, they say: Oh, I know that player. Now I know a little bit about Saudi Arabia. That’s an advertising budget.

It’s a different thing to own a media network that is a sports broadcaster. That’s how you actually make money. So that is—you know, that is a—I would see more as a positive business venture. It has a rationale for a return on investment rather than an advertising budget, which has a different return on investment—a name-recognition return on investment. And so, yes, it makes sense for governments that spend money on things and have, you know, more state-centered economies to do—you know, to have—to own a broadcasting network.

In the United States, we’re very unfamiliar with that notion because we have a free media, and so our whole economy is structured very differently than the Gulf economies are structured. So every time we see state ownership, we get a little bit uncomfortable about it. That doesn’t make it illegal. That doesn’t make it wrong. And no one forced anyone to go attend the World Cup, right?

LABOTT: Right, right, right.

YOUNG: So, you know, I think the question is: What is so worrisome about the accusation of sportswashing? Is it about being influenced by an advertising campaign? Well, you’re influenced by advertising campaigns every minute of your existence if you have a phone in your hand. But is it about the uncomfortableness of state ownership, right? And that for, I think, an American audience is where we get a little bit, hmm, gosh, you know, is that OK?

And we have rules. We have legislation in place in this country—

LABOTT: Right.

YOUNG: —for foreign-government-owned assets which are of strategic importance to our national security, right? And so we will push back. Is owning the Wizards a threat to our national security, if another state buys a sports team? I don’t think so, right? That’s a very kind of capitalist understanding of, you know, how you can trade, you know, an entity.

So, you know, I just am a little bit—I want to be very clear about what we mean by sportswashing and kind of how we define these levels of, you know, who did something wrong.

LABOTT: Right. Right.


YAGER: So I think that there are just two examples of problems and why we’re so concerned about the sportswashing.

When Qatar owns pieces of the Wizards or the Capitals—

LABOTT: And let me just also set the scene for Qatar here, because this small little Gulf nation has over decades built a vast empire of investments in clubs, competitions, confederations on six continents. So it’s not just the World Cup or, like, a little football team; it’s pretty vast.

YAGER: Or when Saudi partners with PGA.

LABOTT: Yeah. We’re going to get to that.

YAGER: Yeah.


YAGER: That makes it—the reputation, and how they look open, and that they’re reforming, and that they’re into sports makes it easier for the U.S. to partner with them, makes it easier for democracies to partner with them, makes it harder for democracies like the United States to disentangle themselves. At the Human Rights Council, Saudi continually threatens nations that they are entangled with in these economic ways about their votes.

The other thing that I would say is that Gulf nations getting richer because of these sports engagements, they are sending arms to Sudan, fueling a genocide. These are the effects that happen when they have more money.

LABOTT: So, I mean, this is kind of a small—like, a micro issue of what we call soft power, right, OK? And you know, Joseph Nye—who, if you don’t know who he is, he’s, you know, a legend in the foreign policy space and was the—you know, one of the founding chairmen, I think, of CSIS—he called soft power the ability to affect others to obtain the outcome one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. So it’s a key part of national strategy in terms of not only sport, but music, art, heritage, religion. And this is what a lot of the Gulf states are doing, right? They’re trying to put this out there. So would you be calling it, like, musicwashing? You know, Saudi Arabia in particular is doing a lot of concerts and a lot of entertainment. So do you call it musicwashing? Do you call it artswashing? Like, you know, are they not—just playing devil’s advocate—are they not entitled—you know, their human rights and geopolitical situation aside, should they not be doing this, whether it’s for their citizens or to present a better face to the world?

YAGER: So I don’t think that you can put the geopolitical considerations aside. It is not saying that they shouldn’t do this or that they can’t do this; obviously, they can and do. It’s us—the public, the athletes, the sponsors, the musicians, Beyoncé—understanding what it means to participate in that system.

LABOTT: Well, don’t they know? I mean, doesn’t, you know—doesn’t Beyoncé know what she’s—

YAGER: If anyone has her phone number, I would be delighted to inform her about it. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: No, but I mean—

YAGER: I would hope so, but I think we need a lot more light shed on—

LABOTT: Right.

YAGER: —the ramifications of this entanglement.


I just want to—like, for instance, there was this recent—this was right during the war in Ukraine, and one of the Russian oligarchs that owned one of the—one of the clubs had to give it up because of sanctions and whatever. And so they held a moment for Ukraine and then, in the next moment, they were cheering his name as if, like, it doesn’t—like, these—for the fans, it doesn’t matter. It’s like, they know, they read, but you know, if they have money to, like, you know, get some championships, if they have money to, you know, fund the—fund the players—put these big, you know, salaries of $200 million—like, it’s like they don’t care. And is it fair to put on the fans, or do you think that people have to have more of a civic responsibility to say, kind of like whether it's, like, with, you know, blood diamonds or, you know, workers, or whatever—like, this was made in a sweatshop? Like, is it fair to put on the fans?

YOUNG: Well, you have a choice. Don’t go to the game. Don’t buy the T-shirt. I mean, you have information, right? And so I just think this really isn’t that important, honestly. There are other issues. If you’re interested in state assets and potential threats to national security by sovereign-funded investments, please look at mining. Please look at, you know, the construction of renewable power plants all over emerging markets, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s what matters. Who controls cobalt mines in the DRC? That’s what matters, not who owns a Wizards team. I don’t care. It’s not important, right? Is that going to influence you? Is it going to change your mind about maybe going on vacation to Saudi Arabia? Sure. That’s wonderful. If it opens your kind of thinking about having contact with a different culture and learning more about their government, which you may find strong objections to, what harm has that done, right?

So I—sorry. Maybe you shouldn’t have invited me to a sport event. I’m not a big sports person.

LABOTT: No, I’m—this is a—this is what—

YOUNG: But I just think—

LABOTT: Like, sometimes Council—(laughter)—sometimes there’s just too much agreement on this panel, so I think this is great.

YAGER: But can I say—


YAGER: Can I say, when Russia hosted the Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating went through the roof. There was massive nationalism, patriotism. 2014, he invaded Crimea before the Paralympics had even started, before the formal Olympics were even over. That is the kind of thing that I think we all need to be aware of, that the Olympic Committee needs to be aware of when they’re saying: Here, Russia, host the Olympics. This does matter.

YOUNG: But the counter choice is to not engage at all. And I don’t think—

YAGER: But we could engage and make it better—

YOUNG: That doesn’t leave us in a better place, right?

LABOTT: I mean, look, let’s talk about the U.S. and, like, what’s going on here. So you have the LIV Golf tournament that, basically, Saudi Arabia was, like, hundreds of millions to bring it to Saudi Arabia. And the PGA—you know, Jack Nicholson (sic; Nicklaus) went crazy that he was joining and some others went crazy. And so the PGA suspended them, and then what happens? They sign the deal that it’s going to be a joint effort, right? So now Congress is looking—Sarah, is looking into it to see if they can do that. And I think less about national security like we had with, like, Dubai Ports or something like that. This is definitely more about that they don’t want these rich Gulf nations with human rights abuses to own, like, a piece of Americana like that.

YOUNG: But what is the rule that prevents them from doing so? There is no rule.

LABOTT: That’s another one of my questions. Like—

YOUNG: If it were a private-equity fund that bought a sports team—

LABOTT: Should there be a rule? Should there be a rule, though?

YOUNG: Fine, you know? But you just don’t know about them. You don’t know how, like, not fun they would be to be with. OK.

YAGER: So there actually are rules.

LABOTT: So the DOJ—the DOJ and Congress have open investments into the—investigations into the agreement. You know, they don’t think that—Sarah, that there should be this, like, sportswashing. And you know, I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of objection to it here in the United States.

YAGER: So I think that there are two things about any of these decisions. One is: Can you? That’s a legal argument. The other one is: Should you? That’s a policy argument. And I think—I’m not for disengaging. I am not for never going to a Capitals game. I am for understanding what is happening, understanding the ramifications.

You know, if we look at the next men’s World Cup, it is going to be hosted in, like, thirteen different U.S. cities, L.A. being one of them. Are the homeless going to be displaced? I mean, the thing is there are rules about this that the PGA did not follow. There are—there is the universal Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

LABOTT: Well, you open up a great question that I had. Like, is it just de rigueur today to point out the flaws of all hosts? Like, do you think, you know, when you have, you know, the World Cup in 2026, you know, will we see, you know, looks at migration or, you know, what—you know, the abortion? Like, will there be—you know, is this just about the Middle East, Karen, or is this, like, nowadays, like, anybody—any country that’s going to host an international event, like, opens themselves up to scrutiny? Or do you think it’s—

YOUNG: Well, I would hope it would be, you know—(laughs)—applied evenly, but I think in these cases, no, it’s about our very fraught bilateral relationships with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.

LABOTT: What do you think?

YAGER: So the United States has human rights problems. We are, however, a democracy, so I can sit up here, and I can discuss those human rights problems, and I can protest. And I can protest outside of the FIFA World Cup in Los Angeles if I want to. That is very different from what happens in Qatar and Saudi. So I would say, you know, that if human rights abuses are caused by the hosting of that sports event—for example, the homeless in L.A. being displaced—then absolutely we need to be—

LABOTT: Well, we’re not really talking about that, right? We’re talking about—as Karen said in the beginning, we’re talking about, you know, particularly Gulf states, but other rich autocrats investing in sports to kind of cover up their human—like, to kind of, look, these are—

YAGER: But we have to talk about those human rights abuses.

LABOTT: No, I—no, I understand. But, like, the question is, these are deliberate efforts by states to—and I would—I happen to see it both ways. Like, on one hand I agree with you on all the human rights abuses, but I also think that’s not—I don’t think it’s only about sportswashing. I think it’s about furthering economic ambitions. You know, I think they’re making their kingdom central to global discussions about sporting, tourism, trade, you know, not—by soft power.

And so, you know, my question is: Does it work? Does it work? Do you think it changes—it changes hearts and minds?

YAGER: I do think so. We probably agree on this.

LABOTT: What do you think? What do you think?

YAGER: Is this the thing we agree on?

YOUNG: Yeah. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: You think it does work?

YOUNG: Does being more present or having your—you know, your national airline emblazoned on a popular sports team give people an idea of connectivity and make them wonder about another place, or maybe really piss them off? Yeah, sure. What’s the harm done? So, yes, it makes us—we’re influenced by—

LABOTT: But does it play down women’s rights, gay rights that are restricted, or torture is commonplace, or dissent is suppressed? Does it make you forget that?

YOUNG: I think that would be a pretty hard argument to prove. How would you quantify that? I think that would be very, very difficult.

But certainly, if you’re thinking about, you know, thousands of little kids who are wearing a soccer jersey, for example, with a, you know, Emirates Airline(s) on it, or Etihad, or whatever, Qatar Airways, and they have this positive view growing up—oh, that’s a great place; I’ve always wanted to go there, I love that soccer team, must be amazing—sure, that’s an influence campaign. And maybe that’s not the right impression. Maybe that kid doesn’t get full information. But the same thing happens when you drink the Coca-Cola. I’m sorry, right?

YAGER: I think Saudi Arabia has in the past year shot and killed thousands of Ethiopian migrants coming into their border. I think we need to be aware of that when we see them sponsoring the sports teams that we love. I am not saying we should not go to the games. I am not saying that money shouldn’t be poured into the Women’s World Cup. I am saying we need to be aware of what is behind that.

LABOTT: Well, but we’re getting to—we’re going to open it up for questions, just so everybody gets ready. But the question is—

YAGER: Do people ignore the shooting of the migrants because they are sponsoring the FIFA World Cup?

LABOTT: And, you know, are they—are they entitled to try and, you know, present another—you know, to further their country on the world stage in this way?

YAGER: Yes. That’s why we are here to remind you of all the human rights abuses.


I think we’re going to open it up now. (Laughter.) This is a great discussion. See, we have so many questions. And this is the very kind of—exact kind of conversation we want to have with our—you know, just there are various views. I’m going to invite participants to join our conversation with these questions, participants online. And a reminder this meeting is off the—on the record, sorry. (Laughter.) On the record.

YAGER: I would have said different things if it were off the record. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: No. Oh, really? How do you really feel? (Laughter.)

When you stand up, please introduce yourself, your affiliation, and let’s keep your question to a question. And let’s keep them short because we’re going to go to online participants, and clearly we have a lot of questions. Right here.

Q: Hi. My name is Jamaal Glenn. I run an investment firm called JG Holdings. I very much appreciate that you two didn’t agree.

I’m curious, you started to go the prescriptive route. I mean, there’s so many different players here. There’s owners and league commissioners and—

YAGER: I see what you did there with the players. (Laughter.)

Q: There’s, you know, the companies that air this stuff, media. There’s fans. I’m curious—

LABOTT: Right. That have agency.

Q: What should each of these constituents do? I’m curious. I want to push you a little bit on the prescriptive piece.

LABOTT: Good question.

Q: If you were giving all these different entities advice, what would you say they should do? And including—

LABOTT: What agency does everyone have, yeah.

Q: —(inaudible)—lawmakers, all the different parties.


YAGER: Yeah. OK. There’s probably too much to go through, but I will say, yes, everyone does have agency. I don’t think it’s fair to put it entirely on the athletes, to put it entirely on the audience, but everyone has to be aware of what they’re supporting.

I would also say that the OIC—the Olympic Committee—FIFA, they have now human rights policies/guidelines. They need to stick to them. And we need to have the oversight to say you are actually not sticking to them because they’re the ones that are supposed to be keeping the players and athletes safe, and the governments are the ones that are supposed to be allowing—enabling the rights of the population.

So there are a lot of different constituencies here. All of them have agency. If we don’t know about the abuses that are happening, then nothing gets reformed.

LABOTT: Thank you.

OK, right here. Then we’ll start to go to the back.

Q: Hi. Crystal Staebell with Bechtel Corporation.

So my question might be a bit blunt, but my question is: Who benefits from making these callouts of sportswashing and what are the benefits? I was staying over in the Middle East during the time of the Qatar World Cup and I got a lot of slack as the resident American there for that because I was noticing many people were complaining and saying: This is the West coming in. They’re telling us what to do. They’re trying to take—any time we try to put our foot into one of these big areas, they just slap us with human rights—with human rights violations, say, and then suddenly that just alienates us. Could they not be claiming that the West is trying to monopolize all of the cultural capital and therefore all the soft power? And if so, what do we benefit from trying to do that?

LABOTT: Karen.

YOUNG: Well, like I said before, I mean, these are membership organizations. They applied in whatever way through FIFA to sponsor the World Cup. They won. And they put a lot of money into hosting a world-class event, and invested in infrastructure that I think will last a long time and has, you know, many other uses in the country.

I mean, to your point, Sarah, I think there was a lot of good policywise that came out of the hosting of the World Cup in Qatar in that there was a big light on labor policies. They did open up and reform some on the kafala system, allowing some movement of, you know, people who are tied to their work visas to be able to stay in the country. It’s probably not where you want it to be, right, but it’s in a different place than it was before the games. So that’s a positive outcome.

And you know, somewhat unrelated, but you know, there was a little bit of a hoopla over this in the Women’s World Cup just recently. The Spanish coach, right, who kissed a player, everybody saw that, right, and we had sort of a consensus moment, mmm, that wasn’t OK. That made us uncomfortable. Change happens in that way as well, right, when are people sort of talking in different local environments. That might have been interpreted very, very differently in the Gulf or in Qatar than the way that it would have been interpreted in Spain. But there was offense, probably, in both places, right?

LABOTT: And, Sarah, like, every time there’s a story about Qatar or Saudi Arabia or Russia hosting, Beijing, there is also a mention of their human rights abuses.

YAGER: Yes, which I appreciate. I mean, it’s a way for us and for journalists to spotlight the human rights abuses. But you know, for that—for the minor change in the kafala system in Qatar, thousands of migrants died. None of their families have been compensated. So is that worth it?

LABOTT: I think we’re going to go to a virtual question.

OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Alice Rogers. Please accept the unmute now prompt and proceed with your question, Alice.

Q: Hello. Thank you so much for speaking. My name is Alice and I am an (external ?) candidate in African studies at the University of Cambridge.

My question was I was wondering how you think that Saudi Arabia’s increased investment in sports plays into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, and also how you think that his sort of rhetoric around reinventing Saudi Arabia will kind of affect global perceptions of the country and their human rights record.

LABOTT: Karen.

YOUNG: Yeah. Thank you, Alice. I’m glad you asked that just to put it into a little bit of context.

So the sports investment so far, I mean, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars—$13 billion, actually, so far. That’s a lot of money for all of us in this room, but in the context of what we’re seeing of Vision 2030 investments into other sectors, right, into other initiatives—I mentioned mining, renewable energy; of course, massive investment still into traditional hydrocarbons—this is about 2 percent of what—Saudi’s investment of their allocations right now—2 percent, OK? So, yeah, get upset about sportswashing, but let’s be more focused on how the global economy is changing in other, much more important ways, and the role that emerging-market economies and the leader of the G-20 now, Saudi Arabia, will play in what our global economy looks like ten, twenty years from now.

Where are your plastics going to be coming from, right? People are still going to be pumping oil. You know that, right? Where are critical minerals going to be coming from and who’s going to own the mines? Who are they going to have joint ventures with? Is it going to be a United States entity, a private firm? Is it going to be a Chinese firm? That’s what matters, I think, more than who owns a sports team.

LABOTT: Right back there.

Q: Thanks. I’m Grant Janich with Pallas Advisors.

I wanted to flip this on its head a little bit with when we’re watching tennis a lot of the Russian players, their flags aren’t shown, and Wimbledon didn’t allow them a year ago but did allow them this year, based on the conflict in Ukraine. So, you know, in some ways the West is also using sports to advance its own narrative with regard to the Ukraine conflict. So do you think it’s right that ESPN and NBC, you know, rather than just let the Russian players, you know, and their flags and everything, take, essentially, a side? And does that kind of compromise our moral high ground of sports being sports?

LABOTT: Sarah?

YAGER: Just Russia—

LABOTT: Well, they are trying to make a political statement.

YAGER: Yeah. I mean, I want to—so I want to, like—(laughs)—unpack several of those things. But I will just say Russia invaded Ukraine. It was a war of aggression. I don’t see that as Western nations trying to proliferate their values or belief system on anything. I think that, you know, there is a global consensus that that was absolutely awful and that there are war crimes going on at the behest of Russia. So, you know, to me, I think even if ESPN hadn’t done it—and they have a right to do whatever they want—even if ESPN hadn’t done it, I assume lots of, you know, players would have wanted to make some sort of statement as well.

LABOTT: I’m going to go—did you have a question right here, you? OK. You had a question, too. Why don’t we take both of them, OK?

Q: Hi. My name is Nicole Gerber. I’m the founder of a biorenewable materials infrastructure company.

So I think you guys make both great points. I kind of wanted to put another perspective on this argument. A country like the U.S.—and we are—all the major sports companies and organizations are predominantly American companies, right? This puts us in the leadership position. They’re coming to us—aside from soccer—they’re coming to us to make the deals. I wanted to hear your perspective on what is the corporate responsibility and make it a positive, because, really, they’re turning to American sports companies to come into partnerships with. So don’t you think that there could be a positive solution in pushing these, you know, rights—human rights abuses into the contracts, right?


Q: So you could put in, well, a portion of—you know, if we’re going to do this, then we have to lead some initiative to helping towards women’s rights, to helping the refugees. When making these contracts, it could actually push a positive light on this. And I think it’s also a positive, especially, that it’s a healthy initiative for a country to be modernizing. And I say not—I separate that from Westernizing because I think it’s important to keep different cultures unique to their own countries. So when a country is modernizing, it actually could be a positive moment, especially in a time of change, for them to look towards other countries in leadership roles of how to structure their new deals, their new industries, and implement those, you know, into their workforce.

LABOTT: Thanks. OK.

Q: And having international tourists come that aren’t a part of the Saudi laws or the Middle Eastern, you know, cultural aspects is going to slightly force them to almost modernize in a way that’s acceptable—

LABOTT: Good question.

Q: —to the international tourists.

LABOTT: Good question.

OK. There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s start with what are the corporate responsibilities, because as we said they are coming to the NBA. And look, the NBA is doing a lot of business with China right now, like billions of dollars in, you know, an NBA league in China. They’re trying to get into Africa, too. What are the league’s responsibilities in terms of trying to insert some, you know, conditions and some regulations into there or not even—or not even accepting their money?

YOUNG: You make a good point. It is an opportunity for CSR, right? And so the way that you think about ownership structures, it’s going to vary a lot. So a lot of teams are privately owned by individuals, by groups of individuals. Leagues have different rules, and so that’s probably more of an opportunity to set standards across, you know, teams that want to be part of a league: You have to provide these kind of resources for your members or players. When you go to a stadium, these are the things that you expect to be in place. So, yeah, that is certainly true. But it would just vary.

And I would think also, you know, remember, we started the conversation also talking about sports broadcasting, and that’s more of, you know, a money-making opportunity. And it’s been also a little bit divisive, you know, within—particularly in the Gulf because, you know, who has rights to broadcast what events and show in what countries.

And so—but that, you know, it’s just going to depend. It’s going to depend on the corporate structure, who owns it, is it publicly listed, is it held by individuals, is it maybe a family.

LABOTT: I mean, I think we can—I think we can look and see, like, whether it’s the LIV Golf or, you know, these—they don’t—they don’t really care. They’re looking to make money. And you know, they—and they—pretty much, you know, a lot of these CEOs have said: You know what? I don’t really care. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. So, I mean, I think, you know, these leagues have kind of come down and said that they—you know, it’s not really a concern to them.

I’d like to ask you about—and this is the whole thing with, like, opening up, whether it’s Cuba or, you know, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, the idea that more opening up, more having Western people go there, you know, who follow, you know, international rule of law, is this a way to open up and insert more democracy into these countries? And that’s, like, you know, something that in the international space, like in diplomacy, we talk about that all the time. And, you know, sports is, like, another aspect of that.

YAGER: So you’ve teed me up perfectly. I want to make the point that democracy is not human rights. Human rights are part of a democracy, but they’re not the same thing. But I would love to get—can I just see a show of hands of who believes that human rights is a Western construct? OK. What I’m hearing in the past couple of questions, and your question I think tees this up perfectly—I don’t think that—let me be clear. I don’t think that it’s a Western construct, but I think Western countries adhere to them a lot more than some—there are—you know, when you look at, like, the panoply of democracies that, you know, have good human rights records, most of them are in the West.

So, when the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights was agreed upon, it was all the countries in the world. African nations were a massive part of drafting that declaration of human rights. In every culture in the world—though, please feel free to correct me if I’m missing one—there is a tradition somewhere in there of human rights, even if you did not call it human rights. So I just want to say it is not actually Westernizing. Human rights are supposed to be universal and relate to every person.

LABOTT: OK, so should it be that countries who exercise—

YAGER: Yeah, we can stop that. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: Is it—should it be, you know, citizens from countries that exercise human rights be flooding into Saudi Arabia expecting them to kind of—

YAGER: Well, it sounds like MBS wants them to flood into Saudi Arabia. This is part of his—

LABOTT: Well, that’s my question. Will this help with more of an opening on human rights?

YAGER: So I would say that even U.S. officials flooding into Saudi Arabia over the past year has not done anything but empower MBS to actually increase his human rights abuses. So I’m not convinced that that equation actually works.

LABOTT: Let’s take another, and then we’ll go to—and then we’ll go to you—take another question from the virtual audience.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Samuel Piccardo. Please accept the unmute now prompt, Samuel.

Q: Hello. Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here. My name is Samuel Piccardo. I’m a senior studying international relations at Florida International University.

And my question is basically about the climate factor of this. I understand that a lot of the—you know, the sports and the other industries is part of a transition away from oil. But do you think part of the reason that they’re getting into that—which honestly, it’s less of a hard resource to base an economy off of especially if you’re still developing—do you think they just saw it as, like, a sign of the times? And they saw, like, you know, Western partners, and Western governments, and also others too such as China, getting into alternative energies? Do you think they saw that as a sign of the times, or are there stronger—other stronger motives—

LABOTT: Got it.

Sarah, Karen, do you think that this is about, you know, diversification, those type of—

YOUNG: Right. So investments in sports in Saudi, as I said, are—have been at about 2 percent of the kind of outward investment portfolio, as part of Vision 2030 Initiative. So it’s quite small. And I also think it’s geared more towards the domestic audience than it is for anybody else’s outward perception of the kingdom. So, no. It’s not going to replace oil, absolutely not. But it is—is it part of, you know, a broader initiative of social liberalization? Absolutely. And is it part—you know, are there economic reasons to embrace a culture of sports? Absolutely. The same reason that there are economic reasons for women to be working. It’s not because Mohammed bin Salman is a feminist, right? (Laughs.) It’s because it makes sense to have dual income families. So, yes, it’s good for the economy but it will not drive the economy. And it will not replace, you know, a source of—the most important source of government revenue right now.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Thanks. Hi. I’m Edyt Dickstein from the House Intelligence Committee.

And my question is, aside from the relative degree of import I’m wondering where the actual prescriptive difference is here. Because what I’m hearing is actually go to the Wizards game. You know, think about the sports, but learn what’s going on in the countries. And I hear that as well, of course, of be informed about where the mining is coming from. So I guess what I’m wondering is, when we take a step back, where actually policywise is the difference? And then if there is one, what is the counterfactual to that?

LABOTT: That’s a great question. I mean, should there be more standards in—and, I guess, this—you know, that’s why I think the Senate and the DOJ are looking into this deal with the Gulf. Should there be more human rights standards? I know what Sarah thinks. Should there be more standards in what these countries are able—and that would probably be a corporate decision.

YOUNG: Yeah, I mean, basically it’s a disclosure agreement, right? So it depends how the deal is financed. If you’re borrowing money? Absolutely, you can require more information. You can ask more questions and have that, you know, publicly disclosed. If it’s, you know, a deal between two kind of closed entities, and one person says, yes, I like that number, deal done, then no, right? So it really depends on the financing.

We can also have rules and just have more information about where everything we use and buy comes from. And we do have those things, right? That’s why you have a label in the back of your shirt that says—

LABOTT: It’s more of a civic responsibility.

YOUNG: —that says “made in.” No. I mean, there are rules. There are international trade rules about products that we buy. We have to have, you know, truth in labeling. So, you know, there—

LABOTT: Yeah, there are, whether I want to buy something from China that I know comes from a sweatshop or I’m going to buy something that may be more expensive but I know it was handmade, you know, I don’t know, by—

YOUNG: It’s up to you, but this is a cultural shift as well. And so I think, you know, given the audience and the interest in this topic, there are a lot of people who do care. And I think that’s—you know, besides my disinterest in sports—there are people who do care. And the ownership of their favorite team, and when they’re cheering for that team, how that team is being managed, and the—you know, the support behind it, it matters. So, you know, that’s wonderful. And those fans will be the ones that will maybe force some kind of difference.

LABOTT: What is the prescription? Should athletes be speaking out more? Should the clubs be speaking out more? Should they not sell to the Saudis or the Qataris, or whoever?

YAGER: So I think there’s a difference between engaging from the fans—we can all, like, go to the Wizards game, great—and the Olympic Committee, FIFA, all of the—all of these big entities that make so much money off of these big sporting events. Thinking through, is this—is this dictatorship actually the one that we want to partner with, because there are rules. There are rules around this. There are the guiding principles on business and human rights. FIFA has a human rights policy. OIC has a human rights declaration. Like actually abiding by those things means that actually you might not have a sporting event in a dictatorship. So that’s what I want to see, that those rules are adhered to. And I am not saying that the World Cup is perfectly legitimate in a dictatorship. I am saying there should be thought about that, and the rules should be followed.


It is 7:00, but we started a few minutes late because I had traffic. So I have gotten special dispensation—because we have one rule at the Council, which is to end on time—to take two more questions. And I’m going to take them from these two people, right—well, we’re going to take three. Just one, two, three. (Laugher.) But we’re going to take it in a lightning round, OK? Ask your question, quick, quick little question, OK?

Q: Hi. I’m Nate Dye. I worked with the government.

I just wanted to ask—

LABOTT: The government. (Laughter.)

Q: I wanted to ask, in a follow-up to your statement, so all these organizations—all these major organizations have these rules already. So how do we hold them to those? They don’t have incentives, as of right now, to abide by those rules because they know that people are going to watch the sport anyway. They know people are going to come, you know, to Qatar and watch the game. So how do we hold them to these policies they’ve already established?

LABOTT: Great.

Q: Hi. I’m Christina Bouri. I’m a research associate on Middle East studies here at CFR. I work with Steven Cook.


LABOTT: Who has written—if you want to read about sportswashing, he has written a lot about this, actually.

Q: I’ve heard a lot about it. (Laughter.) So I’m also just going to give some background about myself, just very quickly. I’m Jordanian, and I spent part of my life in Jordan, and my adult life there as well. You guys brought up a really important point, which is MBS is starting to have soft power influence that surpasses and transcends boundaries, not just Saudi Arabia. And we see it economically where many Jordanians, friends of my own, have begun to move to Saudi Arabia for job opportunities. When I say this, I mean that they’re contributing to the economy that also still institutes the kafala system.

Now, with Qatar, they did have regulations 2019 because of the lead up to the World Cup, which is one of the buckets that you described, which then pushed them to, you know, actually address it. But what does that mean for the rest of the region? And the reason that I bring this up is because I’m thinking about wider scheme, like, these are people that are being—that are affected by not just people in the region, but then these are people coming from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Indonesia. Sri Lanka—

LABOTT: Yes. Thanks for your question.

Q: Hi. I’m Max Castroparedes with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

Question is actually on soft power. You mentioned Joe Nye. And, I don’t know, to all three of you, what trends do you three see in the Gulf nations and maybe new investments, and kind of soft power beyond sports?

LABOTT: OK, that’s a great way to close it.

Let’s start by how do you get these countries to adhere to the rules? What happens to the region? And then we’ll end on soft power. Why don’t you just—

YAGER: I’ll do that. (Laughs.)

LABOTT: Yeah. And then—and then you’ll go to Karen, and then we’ll end on soft power.

YAGER: Yeah. It was a really great question. So how do we get them to adhere to the rules? There actually are ways. So journalists spotlighting the human rights abuses, that is extraordinarily important. I would also say that the congressional investigation into the PGA, excellent. There should be more congressional oversight of those sorts of things. And then, you know, for the Beijing Olympics, the US, UK, Australia, and Japan, and Canada had a diplomatic boycott. That makes a big difference.

LABOTT: It did make a big difference, yeah. Why don’t you take the other question on, you know, this is the region. And on one hand, people are being employed. On the other hand, you know, as has been discussed, these are horrible working conditions. And there are people—the Saudis and the—you know, these countries are getting mega rich on the backs of workers who are treated, you know, not great.

YOUNG: That’s a really big statement. I don’t know. I would—I would be really careful.

LABOTT: OK. OK. I mean, we’re not talking about executives from Bangladesh who were sitting in some corporate thing. A lot of—the 200 billion in infrastructure projects mostly, you know, were made by, like, migrant workers who, you know, there was a—actually—

YAGER: Who had to pay to work. They were actually indentured servants.

LABOTT: They had to pay to—I mean, look, I think it’s been documented that a lot of these working conditions are poor. And it’s a good question. On one hand, they’re being employed. On the other hand, like, is this an opportunity? You know, how does this affect the region?

YOUNG: OK. So I’ve been working on the Gulf for sixteen years studying economic diversification, studying labor markets. The questions you asked about kind of the influence on the region and opportunities for work are really, really good ones. This is a moment where we’re seeing expansion, particularly in the Saudi case. They want more people to come, foreigners to come to work. To build the entertainment sector, the sports sector, all the things we’re speaking about. The truth is, because there are opportunities there, this is a draw, this is a magnet. Just the same way that Dubai has been a magnet for Arab nationals for, you know, more than two decades now. If you are looking for a job—if you’re young and you, you know, got a college degree and you can’t find a job at home, that’s why young Arabs want to work in the GCC. And that’s not going to change, right?

LABOTT: And also—it’s also to keep, you know, these people at home, because they’re very happy. Youth in in Saudi are very happy with all the sports and—

YOUNG: We should encourage economic mobility of all kinds. And I think over time, yes, that can lead to more mobility in terms of what’s been breaking down in the kafala system. It is happening. I mean, I have a data set project that I developed, the Gulf Economic Policy Tracker. I can show you from 2015 to 2022 exactly how a pace of reform happened. And then, you know, had this diffusion effect across the GCC. It does happen slowly, and it happens over time, because these economies compete with each other.

So they’re competing for talent, right? And the more that that happens, honestly, the better that is for labor markets, the better that is for economic performance of individual firms. And I think that’s how you’ll get, you know, better results for, you know, the foreign worker, but also for the economy locally.

LABOTT: Thanks for the answer. OK, we’re just going to wrap it. We’re going to wrap it. We’re going to wrap up. We’re not going to talk about—

YAGER: We could go on forever.

LABOTT: We could go on forever. We’re not going to talk about the trends for soft power, but we can talk about it at the reception, OK?

I’d like to thank everyone for joining us. I’d like to thank Sarah, Karen, the Council on Foreign Relations, our audience here, and our virtual audience. And, again, please continue to learn more about the Term Member Program, about the foreign—Young Professionals Program. It’s really something special. Thanks for joining us. (Applause.)


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