Saudi Arabia’s golf case threatens to spill kingdom secrets

Mar 12, 2023, 4:47 AM
FILE - Former President Donald Trump, left, talks with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia'...
FILE - Former President Donald Trump, left, talks with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, on the 16th hole during the first round of the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, NJ., July 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Officials who oversee Saudi Arabia’s alongside former President Donald Trump. But they’ve been silent about many of the details of these relationships.

That’s changing as a result of a federal lawsuit in California pitting the Saudi-owned golf tour upstart LIV against the PGA Tour. A judge, citing what she described as the kingdom’s hands-on management of LIV, found that when it came to the new golf league, Saudi officials and the Saudi government aren’t shielded from U.S. courts the way sovereign nations usually are.

While Saudi Arabia is fighting the decision, insisting U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over its high officials, the ruling means lawyers for the PGA Tour would be able to question top officials about business secrets that the Saudis have held close, such as details of deal-making involving 2024 presidential candidate Trump and others.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman found that the Saudis had smacked up against a commercial exception to U.S. laws on sovereign immunity.

Yasir al Rumayyan, appointed under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to manage the oil-rich Saudi government’s $600 billion-plus stockpile of wealth, is “up to his eyeballs” in managing the golf tour, Labson Freeman declared.

The finding follows PGA Tour claims that al Rumayyan himself recruited LIV players, approved LIV contracts and was otherwise the golf league’s decision-maker and manager. Lawyers for Saudi Arabia counter that Rumayyan’s actions were those of an eager investor, not of someone actually running a business.

The case matters beyond the world of golf. Saudi Arabia has been assertive in U.S. business investments and political relationships and could now face court demands for greater transparency and accountability.

The insistence by Saudi officials that U.S. courts have little or no say over their actions is especially sensitive. Last year, the kingdom, with Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that aides and other Saudi officials sent by the prince killed Khashoggi. The slaying has opened a lasting rift between the Biden administration and Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Longstanding international law generally protects the leaders and government of one country from being hauled into another country’s courts. Congress carved out commercial activity as an exception to that sovereign immunity in 1976.

-The PGA Tour argued in a filing Friday that Saudi Arabia and its sovereign wealth fund under the prince have a record of flip-flopping on insisting upon sovereign immunity, depending on whether doing so works to their advantage in various business deals and lawsuits.

Saudi Arabia’s critics and independent legal experts and analysts say the kingdom may be in a tough spot legally.

“It seemed to me very clear that it wasn’t immune” from U.S. courts when it came to operating the LIV golf tour and tournaments, said Donald Baker, a lawyer and a former head in the Justice Department’s antitrust division who is not involved in the case.

Baker projected the case could lead to California’s Northern District federal court seeking depositions from Saudi royals. Any decisions on whether other Saudi government business deals in the United States have similarly lost their immunity from U.S. courts would have to be made on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Sarah Leah Whitson, who runs the Democracy for the Arab World Now rights group founded by Khashoggi, said that “if they want to have sovereign immunity from their business transactions, it means they can sue people, they can demand that the judicial system enforces contracts and the laws governing contracts, but nobody can impose that against them. Nobody can hold them accountable.”

The Saudi-funded professional golf tour, now in its host three LIV tournaments, in deals whose financial terms have not been publicly disclosed.

Saudi Arabia’s immunity problem comes in an antitrust lawsuit that was initially brought by LIV players against the long-established PGA Tour. The case already has revealed that the Saudi government’s sovereign wealth fund owns 93% of LIV.

A lawyer for Saudi Arabia’s side of the case did not respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment. A LIV spokeswoman referred questions to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which also did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the now eight-year rule of Saudi Arabia’s king, Salman, his son Prince Mohammed has made the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund a primary tool of Saudi investment at home and abroad. The prince is the fund’s chairman. Saudi officials say the aim is to diversify the kingdom’s oil-funded economy.

Under Prince Mohammed and fund governor al Rumayyan, the fund has more than $30 billion invested in Uber, Meta, luxury electric car brand and Tesla rival Lucid, Paypal, Costco and other publicly traded U.S. businesses.

The fund also has consolidated Saudis’ relationship with the Trump family, using Trump golf courses and directing $2 billion to the investment firm of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Rumayyan sits on the board of Uber. He plays golf with Trump. He triggered one of Elon Musk’s biggest tweet storms and legal cases, when Musk tweeted about what he later testified was the prospect of a Saudi sovereign wealth fund deal to take Tesla private.

The Saudi sovereign wealth fund also is spending heavily on sports. In addition to creating the LIV golf tour, the Saudis have bought the Newcastle United soccer team in Britain’s Premier League and hosted Formula One races, horse races with record prize money, and other tournaments and matches, from snooker to boxing and chess.

Saudi Arabia is presenting itself as an energetic, youthful and business-friendly government. Human rights groups counter with the word “sportswashing,” saying the kingdom under Prince Mohammed’s influence is trying to distance itself from the killing of Khashoggi, the jailing of other rights advocates, and a failed war in Yemen. U.S. critics paint Saudi Arabia’s financial deals with Trump and Kushner as the oil kingdom backing one side in America’s highly partisan politics.

“They’re really trying to rebrand the kingdom … using sport to reach a much wider public audience and trying to tap into some of the passion that people have,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute in Houston.

To close the deal buying Newcastle United, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund provided what authorities said were “legally binding assurances” that the kingdom would not be involved in running the team, even though Rumayyan serves as team chairman. Rights advocates argued unsuccessfully for a reexamination of that deal in light of the rulings of the California federal court.

Critics — and the PGA Tour lawyers in Friday’s filing — also contend Saudi Arabia willingly waived sovereign immunity when it submitted government documents in another U.S. case, against a Saudi who had served as a top intelligence official under the previous king. The United States intervened to quash the case on the grounds it threatened to reveal national security secrets.

In the golf lawsuit, LIV players and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, formally called the Public Investment Fund, argue that unfair practices by the PGA are harming LIV. PGA lawyers respond in filings that it’s the reputations of Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed that are scaring away business.


AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.

National News

Keanu Reeves, the star of "John Wick: Chapter 4," wears a blue ribbon on his lapel in tribute to hi...
Associated Press

‘John Wick’ stars honor late co-star Lance Reddick

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne were among the died unexpectedly last week, at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. “We lost our brother, and in a really sort of very shocking way. I think we’re all still in shock. “Life is,” the visibly-shaken Fishburne said, pausing briefly before continuing, “hard sometimes.” Many […]
1 day ago
FILE - Gwyneth Paltrow arrives at the 26th annual ELLE Women in Hollywood Celebration at the Four S...
Associated Press

Gwyneth Paltrow to stand trial for Deer Valley ski crash

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Gwyneth Paltrow is scheduled to stand trial on Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a retired optometrist who said that the actress-turned-lifestyle influencer violently crashed into him in 2016 while skiing in Utah at one of the most upscale ski resorts in the United States. Terry Sanderson, 76, said Paltrow […]
1 day ago
FILE - Tribal councilman Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks with Apache activists during a rally to save Oak...
Associated Press

Apaches get new chance to argue mine will harm sacred sites

PHOENIX (AP) — An Apache group battling a foreign mining firm that wants to build one of the largest copper mines in the United States on what tribal members say is sacred land will get a new chance to make its point Tuesday when a full federal appeals court panel takes another look at the […]
1 day ago
Indiana's Mackenzie Holmes (54) shoots against Miami's Kyla Oldacre (44) during the first half of a...
Associated Press

Miami shocks top-seed Indiana in March Madness

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Destiny Harden made a shot in the lane with 3.5 seconds left to send ninth-seeded Miami past top-seeded Indiana 70-68 on Monday night, lifting the Hurricanes to their first Sweet 16 since 1992. The Hoosiers (28-4) became the second No. 1 seed to be eliminated in two nights. Stanford was upset […]
1 day ago
Sylvia Garcia, from Bassett Street Elementary, talks as she and other teachers attend a Los Angeles...
Associated Press

Los Angeles schools to close as district workers plan strike

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tens of thousands of workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District planned to walk off the job Tuesday over stalled contract talks, and they will be joined in solidarity by teachers in a three-day strike that will shut down the nation’s second-largest school system. Demonstrations are expected at schools across […]
1 day ago
FILE - The Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., is shown on Jan. 8, 2020. Tennessee Republi...
Associated Press

Tennessee House OKs narrow abortion exemption bill

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s GOP-dominant House on Monday advanced legislation that would add a narrow exemption to the state’s strict abortion ban, despite concerns raised by Democrats and medical experts that the bill does not go far enough to protect doctors and pregnant patients. The legislation was drastically reworked from its original version that […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Saudi Arabia’s golf case threatens to spill kingdom secrets