With a bit of Saudi topspin, tennis fans can overlook its brutal repression of women | Catherine Bennett

With a bit of Saudi topspin, tennis fans can overlook its brutal repression of women | Catherine Bennett

If a record of sexual apartheid is not the ideal look for a nation that must still, occasionally, placate progressives, news of an extreme example – the lengthy imprisonment of Manahel al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old fitness instructor and women’s rights activist – has at least arrived too late to tarnish Saudi Arabia’s latest sporting triumph: buying up the Women’s Tennis Association finals.

In fact, given that country’s hectic promotional schedule, there could hardly have been a more convenient time for human rights organisations to report, as they did last week, that al-Otaibi whose circumstances were for months unknown, is serving 11 years in prison for the “terrorist” offences of wearing “indecent clothes” (ie, not an abaya) and supporting women’s rights. Her sister, Fouz al-Otaibi, fled the country in 2022 to avoid similar persecution. Fouz tweeted last week: “Why have my rights become terrorism, and why is the world silent?”

Had the scale of this injustice emerged earlier it could have cast a shadow over the unopposed election in March of a Saudi, Dr Abdulaziz Alwasil, as chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a title reflecting his country’s attractive new image as a champion of women’s rights. Although it may be optimistic, given the already abundant evidence of sexist brutality before Alwasil’s promotion, to think that the imprisonment of another woman would have penetrated UN torpor about one of the world’s most misogynistic countries leading a global body “dedicated to the promotion of gender equality”. “Is the international community’s commitment so shallow that no better champion could be found,” the academic Maryam Aldossari wrote at the time, “or was Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s leader, simply unavailable for the role?”

Ideally, revelations about al-Otaibi’s sentence would have appeared still earlier, in response to a UN special rapporteur’s inquiry as to her treatment. Since it appears that al-Otaibi would only recently have been convicted by a secret court, in January, when the Saudi ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, in a widely reported statement, said it was “beyond disappointing” that critics of a mooted WTA deal were resorting to “outdated stereotypes and western-centric views of our culture”. To put it another way: were they suggesting it was the kind of hell where mutinous women could be sent down for 11 years for wearing dungarees?

In a joint article (“We did not help build women’s tennis for it to be exploited by Saudi Arabia”) for the Washington Post, the tennis champions Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had indeed argued that the Saudi deal negotiated by WTA’s leader, Steve Simon, would represent a “significant regression”. The WTA’s values, they explained, “sit in stark contrast to those of the proposed host”.

Defending her country, Princess Reema took the opportunity to reproach Evert and Navratilova for deficient feminism. Women astronauts were mentioned. “This not only undermines the progress of women in sports, it sadly undermines women’s progress as a whole”.

After the WTA deal was signed, in April, Navratilova commented, it was “about as big a change as you can make except for maybe going to North Korea”. Which is definitely something for the WTA to consider when the three-year Saudi deal comes up for renewal. Why not? None of the main criteria the WTA applied to the Saudi proposal featured human rights. And when these unsporting irritants do arise, a mention of wholesome legacies plus some inspirational allusions to world peace, usually – witness this year’s intensely undiscriminating Olympics – offer relief.

The lesson of Saudi sportswashing is that what might sound unthinkable can rapidly, given resourceful sports officials and complaisant players, be realised in exactly the way the sponsoring country intended. The WTA deal being concluded, Simon offered, by way of positives, both “significant change being made within the region” and what would prevent it, “different cultures and systems”.

In practice, as human rights organisations explain, the tennis deal is designed to obscure not alleviate the oppression of Saudi women living under male guardianship law. This, Human Rights Watch says, “sets out the order of who can act as a woman’s male guardian, starting with her father, then moving along the patriarchal line to her grandfather, brother, uncles, male cousins, and finally, a male judge to decide who she can marry.”

Russian player Daria KasatkinaView image in fullscreen

But already the BBC can be seen getting behind a more progressive fiction. Days before Amnesty called for the release of al-Otaibi, a sports correspondent reported that the Russian player, Daria Kasatkina, who is a lesbian, will not risk the vicious punishments applicable to gay Saudi nationals: such as prison sentences or lashes: “I’ve been given guarantees that I’m going to be fine”.

Last year, Kasatkina had her doubts, according to the BBC; now she applauds the Saudi venture. “As long as it gives the opportunity to the people there, and the young kids and the women to actually see the sport – so that they can watch it, they can play it, they can participate in this, I think it’s great.”

As with Saudi football and golfing acquisitions, the latest sportswashing confirms that you can’t overestimate the willingness of humane people who love sport not to hold evidence of savage repression against a truly generous despot. All the more so in female sport given extensive male readiness – as witnessed with David Cameron’s business overtures in Saudi Arabia, Tobias Elwood’s enthusiasm for the Taliban – to exclude the theocratic oppression of entire female populations from the category of serious human rights abuse.

Meaning that, as regrettable as it is that news about al-Otaibi’s treatment emerged only after Saudi Arabia bought a women’s sport event founded on the principle of equality, tennis fans may require only minimal assurances and a few news cycles to forget all about it. Credit where it’s due: Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t just threaten his female subjects into submission, he’s made the entire audience of the WTA finals complicit.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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