In January, the European Tour held the inaugural Saudi International in Saudi Arabia, an event marked by heated debate over the appropriateness of playing the tournament in the Middle East country. Months before Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who lived in Virginia and was a critic of the Saudi government, was killed at the country's ministry in Istanbul. Khashoggi's murder brought other Saudi Arabia human-rights issues to light, putting the European Tour, Pelley and players—many of whom received million-dollar appearance fees—in a precarious position.
“To turn a blind eye to the butchering of a media member in some way euphemizes the egregious atrocity that not only took place with the Khashoggi murder but what goes on there all the time,” said the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee at the time. “By participating, [the players] are ventriloquists for this abhorrent, reprehensible regime.”
However, Pelley is apparently undaunted by the fallout, telling Reuters that the tour will return to Saudi Arabia in 2020.
“It was the right decision for our tour,” Pelley told Reuters. “We will be back in Saudi, and we'll continue to grow that event. We believe our role will help the evolution of the country.”
Somewhat curiously, Pelley said he was “perplexed” at his sport was being singled out for holding an event in the country.
“After the incident [murder], many blue-chip businesses and many governments continued to do business in Saudi, [and the] entertainment business is still flourishing,” Pelley said. “There was Italian Super Cup with AC Milan and Juventus [in January], and Ronaldo scored the winning goal and celebrated, and we tried to find any kind of criticism for Ronaldo, yet our players were criticized. Why was golf singled out? I was perplexed why we were.
“I went over there first and listened to his Excellency (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) at a sports conference, talk about how … the country wanted to change, needed to change, wanted to use sports as a catalyst, was committed to golf.”
The country's civil liberties continue to be a concern. In April, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people for terror-related crimes; at least 33 belonged to the Sunni Muslim kingdom’s Shiite minority, and human-rights organizations have expressed doubts about the fairness of their trials.
Asked by Reuters if any country's human-rights records would raise a red flag, Pelley would only say his first concern was the safety of his players and staff.
“We would look at where they would be playing,” Pelley said. “After that you would evaluate and go through a bunch of different things.”