On Tuesday, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf announced their surprise merger that will end a year-long rift in professional golf. LIV, a breakaway tour which held its inaugural event in June 2022, has been controversial for various reasons. Chief among them is the fact that LIV’s funding comes from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), a sovereign wealth fund headed by Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
Many consider the vast sums offered to professional golfers to be tainted income from a government that has a heavily criticised human rights record. Saudi involvement in golf is seen as the latest stage in a process called sportswashing, whereby the regime attempts to clean its tarnished international reputation by taking a leading role in popular sport.
On Tuesday, after news broke of the shock merger, Irish golfer Pádraig Harrington, who did not move to the LIV tour but is one of the many golfers who now stands to earn money from the new Saudi investment in the PGA and DP World Tour, reacted with a thread of tweets. Most notably, Harrington pointed to Irish trade with Saudi Arabia.
“My own country sells military technology to Saudi Arabia,” he posted. “So many other compromises. Yes this is sports washing and yes unfortunately it proves sports washing works. But maybe [there is] one positive, inclusion and trade has shown to improve and change countries involved for the better.”
Was Harrington right?
In a strict sense, no. In 2021, the year of the most recent publicly available figures, Irish companies exported military technology to Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, but not to Saudi Arabia.
However, the Irish Department for Enterprise, Trade and Employment can grant export licenses for dual-use goods to a range of countries, including Saudi Arabia. Dual-use items include goods, software and technology that can be used for both civilian and military applications.
The granting of these licenses is subject to conditions. Among them is the prohibition on their use for exports to military, police or state security end users. In other words, Irish companies can export goods and technology that have both civilian and military use to Saudi Arabia, but not directly to the Saudi military, police or any other state body involved in security.
Do Irish companies export dual-use goods to Saudi Arabia?
According to the Department for Enterprise, the Government has received 172 applications for export licenses for dual-use goods to Saudi Arabia since August 2019. Of these, 164 were granted and eight were denied. A department spokesman says that these licenses were largely for “standard business ICT products, both hardware and software, eg data storage, networking, cybersecurity, that incorporate strong encryption for security purposes and are therefore subject to EU export controls.”
In 2021, there were 21 active individual dual-use licenses for exporting to Saudi Arabia at a total valuation of just under €72 million.
Therefore, Irish companies do export technology with both civilian and military use to Saudi Arabia, but not directly to any military or police wing of the Saudi government.
What about human rights?
In response to the news of the PGA/LIV merger, Amnesty International labelled Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as “dire”.
In 2018, the CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. According to Amnesty International, Saudi authorities have targeted individuals for “peacefully expressing their right to freedom of expression”, human rights activists are harassed in prison and courts have imposed death penalties following “grossly unfair trials”.
In 2019, then minister for enterprise Heather Humphreys said that 11 applications from Irish firms for dual-use export licenses had been rejected due to concerns over human rights in Saudi Arabia and its respect for international humanitarian law. However, in response to queries in relation to the reasons for rejecting dual-use export licenses since 2019, the Department of Enterprise said it does not disclose those reasons.
The department releases an annual report under the Control of Exports Act 2008. The most recent report, for 2021, featured a foreword from then minister for enterprise Leo Varadkar in which he recognised the “vital importance of global security and humanitarian considerations in trade. We are deeply committed to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to supporting regional security and stability, to preventing terrorism and to protecting human rights.”
What about other trade?
On Wednesday, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said Irish trade with Saudi Arabia is “limited enough” and the Irish Government raises the issue of human rights at ambassadorial level on “an ongoing basis”. The Department of Enterprise did not disclose the identity of companies that have been granted licences for dual-use goods, but various Irish companies are engaged in business activities away from dual-use goods with state bodies in Saudi Arabia.
In 2021, while still minister for enterprise, Mr Varadkar led an Enterprise Ireland trade mission to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Sixty Irish companies participated in the five-day visit.
In March 2022, the international wing of the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) won a contract to manage King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah for a period of five years. DAA, a state body, had already been managing a terminal at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh. Both airports are owned by the Saudi government.
Elsewhere, Xunison, a software company based in Sandyford, Co Dublin, signed a contract in 2021 to develop software for the Saudi Telecoms Company (STC). The Public Investment Fund, the same body investing in LIV golf and now the PGA Tour, is a majority stakeholder in STC.
Irish firm Vizor Software, which was acquired by Regnology in 2021, provided technology to the Saudi Central Bank. ByrneLooby, an engineering firm, has been commissioned by the Royal Commission in Jubail to build a number of bridges in Saudi Arabia, alongside various other projects in the country.
Xunison and Regnology did not respond to requests for comment.
In January 2022, Kerry Group opened a new 21,500sq ft facility in Jeddah and has invested €80 million in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey region since 2018.
According to the Irish Business Network, airport retail company Aer Rianta International – which is a subsidiary of the DAA -, food production company Almarai and Jones Engineering Group are other companies with Irish links that are active in Saudi Arabia.