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Features, Main News, Non-Ranking

Selling its soul or growing the sport? Snooker in Saudi

This week sees snooker take its first steps into Saudi Arabia, the country that has controversially linked itself with a host of sports in recent times.

The Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker will be staged from Monday to Wednesday at the Boulevard Arena.

It’s a non-ranking tournament featuring the top ten players from the official world ranking list, plus an additional two wildcards.

A second event in Saudi Arabia has already been confirmed for this summer, with the Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters carrying ranking status and open to all competitors on the main tour.

As expected, the prize funds for both events are enormous, with the latter set to be second in size only to the sport’s flagship World Championship.

For the upcoming invitational, meanwhile, the champion will walk home with a sum of £250,000 – equal to the winner’s cheques that were awarded at this season’s UK Championship and at the Masters.

There is also a whopping $500,000 jackpot bonus on offer if a player can pot the new 20-point golden ball and compile the first ever break of 167.

Such a significant financial boost would normally be welcome, but many are unhappy that snooker has aligned itself with a regime frequently accused of sportswashing.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has often been questioned internationally, particularly with regard to its treatment of women, migrants, and the lack of freedom of expression it permits its citizens.

In terms of the sport itself, what level of control Saudi Arabia ultimately ascertains as a result of its fledgling involvement within snooker is another significant talking point.

Is the golden ball in Riyadh this week simply a one-time gimmick or a taste of more outlandish variations of the traditional rules to come?

Is talk of this summer’s ranking event being classified as the “fourth major” going to satisfy Saudi’s demand for status given its new weight of support monetarily, or will it eventually lead to its acquisition of the World Championship?

There have been calls that the sport has sold its soul and that players should even boycott the events, but is that fair on them?

There are a lot of questions, but there aren’t necessarily clear answers to them all yet.

What is clear is that all of the top ten players from the world rankings will play this week, and several of them have openly come out in support of the opportunity to earn more money.

“I don’t get involved in any of the politics, no matter where I play,” Mark Allen said, as reported by the BBC.

“It’s just the way I am. I’m here to provide for my family and my family’s future and get more money. That’s all I’m worried about.”

“If Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region want to throw big money at the sport, I’m all for it.

“There are a lot of countries around the world that do strange things in their decision-making on how they run their countries, and we still go and participate in sports round there.

“Even closer to home there’s probably a lot of things that people wouldn’t support, but they still go and take their wage and we’re no different.”

On the global Human Rights Index, Saudi Arabia ranks only a few places lower than China – another rich market that snooker has successfully established itself in.

This month’s World Open will be the fourth event in China this season, and a new lucrative tournament has already been announced in Xi-an for the upcoming campaign.

Yet there hasn’t been the same level of opposition to these events on the calendar, and not even close to it.

There is a general acceptance that China has established itself as a “snooker country” and, for some reason, that makes everything a lot more acceptable regardless of what else is going on in the country.

It’s perhaps worth remembering that snooker’s first foray into China was back in the 1980s – a decade that culminated with a violent government crackdown of pro-democracy protests.

At that time, there were no Chinese players on the main tour, and it took until the mid-2000s for a star to emerge in the form of Ding Junhui, a future world number one.

Whether something similar will develop in Saudi Arabia or its neighbouring countries over time remains to be seen, but it’s not impossible.

Regarding the argument of top players boycotting, what good would that actually do?

Would Saudi Arabia suddenly decide to improve their human rights issues on the back of a decision by, say, world champion Luca Brecel to not play in one of its events?

These problems, extremely serious they may be, are not really for snooker players to challenge and fight.

There are claims that it’s all about the money. Well, yes. Playing snooker is their job, and for a sport that isn’t one of the richest, opportunities like this are difficult to snub.

The quarter-finalists at the Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker will earn £50,000, which is more than the runner-up received at the recent Welsh Open in Llandudno.

Not many people would turn down an opportunity to earn a salary that is multiple times their normal amount.

Like most controversial topics, it isn’t just as black and white as there being a definitive right or wrong. There is a grey area.

“I’m uncomfortable with the assumptions that are made,” Shaun Murphy said on the OneFourSeven Podcast.

“Because you support these events and want to enter and play in these territories, that somehow equals supporting these regimes.”

“I don’t believe the two go together, I really don’t believe that you can make that link.

“Without going super political, at all, I think that when you watch the news and you feel sympathy for what’s going on in the Middle East at the moment in Palestine, that doesn’t make you antisemitic.

“You can do both. You can have sympathy without judging and belittling a different nation. The two aren’t linked.

“Wanting to go play snooker in Saudi Arabia in a tournament that’s a very big tournament, a very glamorous event, wanting to see the world and travel and do all of those things, doesn’t mean you support a regime with a poor human rights record.

“It doesn’t mean that at all, and I wish people would stop making those links.”

Featured image credit: WST

10 Comments

  1. Jakob Kidde Sauntved

    I assume the Human Rights Index you’re referring to is the Freedom in the World index by Freedom House? Or is it something else?

    Personally I think hypocrisy is a bit overrated when it comes to such matters. China and India have giant populations of more than a billion and each make up such a big part of the world that you can discuss who is boycotting whom if you boycott one of them. That’s dfferent from all other countries. Giving China a special status is not hypocrisy because China is (along with India) in a league of its own.

  2. Jay Brannon

    It is only the top eight playing as opposed to the top ten. Can’t believe how much the jackpot is for potting the golden ball. Best of 9 final is odd for 250k!

  3. Jay Brannon

    Ken Doherty won the seniors event yesterday on home soil. I’ve not been able to find out the full results.

  4. Joe Parkes

    Murphy talks a load of BS, of course people make a link between countries with poor human rights and sports these countries are using sport to by people and countries off and it will always be so.
    If all our players play in these events that are not even ranked then the chances are our own organisations will collapse.
    We don’t see matches that are in china on ordinary tv and even if we did I wouldn’t watch them, the last time I heard a quote was it’s equivalent to selling out and it just shows what a money grabbing snooker players turned into, even in the UK players make a living that only us can dream of, I’d like to see the players of today play on the cloths with the heavy balls that we used to play on, players of today have the white cleaned off more times than we change our socks, the players moan if a ball rolls off course do they actually know that atmospherics in the room changes how the balls on the cloth behave? I doubt it.

  5. Jay Brannon

    Another issue I have with events in Saudi Arabia compared to China is how closely aligned sporting promoters work with the state in putting on sporting events.

    While at least in China women get equal opportunity to participate in sport unlike in Saudi Arabia. The World Snooker Tour is open to all and the sport has values of inclusivity that are at odds with the Saudi values on this area.

    • Yes, the full event in the autumn will contain 5 local wildcard players. I would hope a condition imposed by WST is that three of those go to the Saudi amateur champion, Saudi U21 champion, and the Saudi Women’s champion. Having national amateur tournaments is a key milestone for developing the game.

  6. David Taylor

    Money doesn’t talk it Shouts

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