Bill barring Saudi-backed golf tournament edges toward law

Measure introduced after event at Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf course in July

By: - October 17, 2022 6:45 am

Critics allege the LIV Golf tour — which stopped at Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf course in July — is a bid to reform an image damaged by Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

New Jersey moved closer to banning some sports events paid for by foreign governments after a Senate panel approved a bill Thursday barring them from being hosted in the state, a measure inspired by the 2022 LIV Golf Invitational held at former President Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf club in July.

Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) said he and fellow sponsor Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex) introduced the bill in a bid to stop further events backed by Saudi Arabia because of the nation’s troubling human rights record.

“It is tailored to go specifically after one particular golf tournament that is sponsored by one particular country with an abhorrent human rights record,” Zwicker said during a Senate State Government Committee hearing.

Though he did not name Saudi Arabia as the country, there’s little question over the bill’s target.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund fueled by the nation’s oil trade, has reportedly invested $2 billion into LIV Golf, funds that allow it to offer massive signing bonuses to professional golfers while maintaining larger prize pools than the PGA Tour.

LIV Golf opponents have charged the tour is a bid to reform an image damaged by Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, a practice called sportswashing.

“This government is using this tournament to try to increase their reputation around the world,” Zwicker said.

In addition to the 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a killing U.S. intelligence officials have said was made at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has faced criticism over the jailing of dissidents and activists and the repression of religious freedoms, among other things.

Though a statement attached to the bill singles out Saudi Arabia and its sovereign wealth fund, the bill’s text isn’t quite so specific. As written, it bars any sports organization operating on dollars pulled from a sovereign wealth fund — a type of government-operated investment fund — from holding events in the state.

Sen. Vince Polistina (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) said he worries that mismatch could ensnare events sponsored by governments without Saudi Arabia’s baggage.

“Why not tailor it specifically to that golf tournament?” he said. “It seems like you would not want to do something so broad as to potentially impact a dozen countries and potentially sovereign wealth funds within the United States of America. Why not just say you don’t want Donald Trump to be able to hold a golf tournament at his golf course in New Jersey?”

While the United States does not operate a sovereign wealth fund, at least 10 states have one.

Polistina added an effort to restrict Saudi-backed sports in New Jersey could jeopardize diplomatic efforts to improve the observance of human rights in Saudi Arabia, noting President Joe Biden met with the crown prince in July in a bid to repair relations between the two countries.

“When our top diplomat, as the president of the United States, goes to Saudi Arabia, it would seem to me that we should be working towards strengthening that relationship and strengthening their commitment to human rights activities as opposed to banning a single golf tournament in the state of New Jersey,” the senator said.

But Zwicker insisted the bill, which does not yet have an Assembly companion, would add to those efforts, not detract from them.

“The idea is that we have both carrots and sticks as a way to get progress,” he said. “I think this is the right way to approach this.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.