, Nicolas Brasseur and Yves Lévesque MISE À DAY
In the midst of a pandemic, Saudi Arabia's controversial Public Investment Fund (PIF), headed by despot Mohammed bin Salman, has quietly integrated into the ownership group of the Montreal Canadiens' extended family .
In April 2020, the PIF invested no less than US$520 million in the American company Live Nation. It owns nearly half of the events division of Groupe CH, which organizes several of the biggest shows and festivals in Quebec.
The Saudi kingdom, known for flouting human rights, has therefore made its way into one of the jewels of the Molson family, the CH Group, whose offices are located at the Bell Centre.
This rapprochement with the most prestigious hockey team in the world is part of a series of exorbitant investments made recently by the PIF in the sports and entertainment industry, notably in golf and Formula 1.
This sector has been one of the areas targeted for five years by Saudi Arabia in its “Vision 2030” plan, with the aim of diversifying its economy and being less dependent on oil.
All over the planet, there are countless people who accuse this Saudi investment fund of washing away the horrible reputation of Saudi Arabia with money stained with blood. Pressure groups have also called for a boycott of companies linked to the PIF.
The experts consulted by our Bureau of Investigation believe that with these investments, Saudi Arabia is seeking to increase its power, in addition to improving its image. Qatar used a similar strategy by hosting the FIFA World Cup and buying the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club.
Live Nation's influence is great within Group CH. And Saudi capital makes it the third largest shareholder in Live Nation.
Michael Rapino, CEO of Live Nation Entertainment, and Wayne Zronik, President of Live Nation Canada, sit alongside brothers Geoffrey and Andrew Molson on the boards of directors of evenko and one of its subsidiaries, L'Équipe Spectra .
“We are approaching a control”
“Very clearly there is a Saudi interest in the company [evenko]” , says Professor Ivan Tchotourian, professor at Laval University and co-director of the Center for Studies in Economic Law.
“With representatives on the board of directors, we are approaching a control, because there is an identity, he adds. The interest is present and we see a chain of ownership even if they are indirect investments.”
According to the expert in business ethics and governance Michel Séguin, “a company [like the Groupe CH] would not have an interest in associating with partners who have contrary principles.”
“In business, there is the theory of the contract. One is responsible for what the other does, explains the UQAM professor. There are plenty of grievances against the Saudi regime. What I see as an ethicist is that human rights, respect and gender equality are more sensitive topics.”
Groupe CH declined our interview requests to directors Geoff Molson and France Margaret Bélanger, and did not answer our questions.
$20M IN SUBSIDIES FOR TWO YEARS
Groupe CH has benefited from more than $20M in public funds since its alliance with Live Nation .
This is the result of a compilation of grants and financial commitments from the three levels of government carried out by our Bureau of Investigation.
And this, even if the Legault government said it was “concerned” that an American company bought almost half of the shares of the Quebec company Evenko in December 2019, then reported La Presse.
Other Saudi breakthroughs in professional sports
The PIF has made itself better known this year by suddenly landing on the chessboard of men's professional golf. The new LIV Golf circuit, led by Greg Norman, offered bonuses of more than $100 million to attract several stars such as Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Cameron Smith. LIV Golf had five events in North America this year. The exodus has driven a deep rift with the traditional PGA Tour, which is backed by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. The 2022 season was notably marked by legal proceedings.
Most popular sport in Saudi Arabia. PIF have taken control of English Premier League club Newcastle Unitedfor $415 million in the fall of 2021. It went ahead despite league reluctance and fan protests. Mohammed bin Salman had even challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to get involved in the transaction. According to a $145 million agreement that began in January, the Spanish Super Cup will be played at Riyadh Stadium until 2029. The PIF would also become a major sponsor of Real Madrid in 2023. The prestigious jersey would be decorated with the logo of the Qiddiya megaproject. According to the $150 million agreement, the club's big stars should publicly support this project. Real's women's team is also expected to wear the Qiddiya logo, causing outcry as the authoritarian regime flouts women's rights and freedoms.
In addition to its stake in the Molson family group of companies, the PIF lurks behind the owners of the New York Rangers forming Madison Square Garden Sports. He has business ties with Silver Lake Partners, a private investment firm that owns 10% of the group. NHL teams, like several other professional leagues, including the NFL, MLB and NBA, also use the Ticketmaster ticketing platform, owned by Live Nation, which is funded by the PIF.
< p>In the NBA, one of the shareholders of the Brooklyn Nets, Joseph Tsai, is the co-founder of the powerful Chinese e-commerce corporation Alibaba. The PIF has more than $ 1 billion of financial interests in Alibaba. He also has significant capital in Walmart, whose Walton-Penner family, majority shareholder of the multinational, owns the Denver Broncos, in the NFL.
In major league baseball, the PIF has been a major partner of Liberty Media, owner of the Atlanta Braves since 2007.
Through their oil Aramco, the Saudis have become one of its six main partners in F1. They also finance the Aston Martin teams.and McLaren. After canceling the Russian Grand Prix in response to the invasion of Ukraine, F1 leaders have curiously decided to keep the Jeddah stage, disputed in March in Saudi Arabia, on the calendar. The second event in history was marked by missile attacks on the oil installations near the circuit. The drivers had met for four hours to discuss the fate of the race. The BBC had reported that the organizers had put pressure on the event to go ahead as planned, and jeopardized exit visas from the country if the race were to be cancelled.
Laundering its reputation with tens of billions
➤ The Saudi regime invests in sport to improve its image and gain power
Soccer matches, Formula 1 grand prix, car races, golf tournaments and boxing galas are among the twenty major sporting events presented across Saudi Arabia since 2018. Mohammed Ben Salmane has spent tens of billions of dollars for the attract to his country.
Money rules the world. This is the principle that Saudi Arabia applies. Sitting on an invaluable and inexhaustible fortune, Mohammed bin Salman uses it to break into markets, develop his territory and attract many players in international society.
According to several experts, the Crown Prince's strategy is to open chests of gold to make his demands hard to refuse.
According to them, he is doing it to clear his disastrous reputation, buy silence and above all increase his power. which they have the means, in order to build a power of influence on the international scene, affirms André Richelieu, professor of the marketing department of UQAM.
“These countries are becoming actors in the creation and the organization of events and the acquisition of prestigious teams,” he adds.
Reports by Amnesty International and Freedom House are scathing about the Saudi state which has one of the worst records in the world on rights and freedoms.
According to Jocelyn Coulon, former adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Stéphane Dion from 2015 to 2017, the country uses money in the hope of making people forget this record.
“Saudi Arabia starts with the idea that the more important contracts it grants to the West, the more it deepens its relations there and the less the West will be watching what is happening in Saudi Arabia,” he explains. .
It deplores arms contracts and the war waged in Yemen.
The sports, leisure and entertainment sector is one of the 13 strategic areas of the “Vision 2030” plan “. It serves, among other things, to promote the country.
Saudi Arabia is already so well integrated into North American sport. According to data from Pitchbook, a financial database, Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) held $3 billion worth of minority shares in sports franchises across America in 2021.
Globally, the PIF injected $51 billion into the world of sports in 2021.
While some athletes refused the Saudi loot, others jumped into the box candy. Several sporting events offering huge scholarships are held across Saudi Arabia.
In 2022, the Saudi fund has mainly spent a fortune on golf, investing more than $2 billion in it.
It is now ready to swallow up the great circus of Formula 1, several European media reports indicate.
And now, on the sidelines of the World Cup in Qatar, there are rumors that bin Salman would like to host the event at home in 2030 in partnership with Egypt. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has met the Crown Prince many times over the past few months.
A soccer fan unfurls a Saudi Arabian flag at the home of Newcastle United as the English club is owned by the PIF.
SEARCHING FOR POWER
These examples no longer fit only into the notion of “sports whitening”.
“We can safely argue that a new world order is taking shape through trade, diplomacy and sport. This is the strategy of place branding. Nations seek to position themselves on the international scene to strengthen their notoriety and brand image, in particular through sports,” explains Professor Richelieu.
He cites the Soccer World Cup in Qatar.
THIS IS COMING WITH US
According to the co-director of the Center for Economic Law Studies at Laval University, Ivan Tchotourian, the money from the Middle East will sooner or later flow to North America.
“The North American sporting pattern still holds, but it will be shaken up one day. [Middle Eastern money] was not present in the sporting world of Europe a few years ago. It is now widespread”, recalls the expert of French origin.
According to him, “we must therefore find a certain balance so that the financing is not used to promote a country .
In the mind of Professor Sami Aoun, an expert in applied politics, there is no doubt that the Saudi prince uses sport to accentuate his power. A strategy that also allows him to build relationships and expand the Saudi footprint. Mr. Aoun also points out that Saudi Arabia is also investing in other areas.
“[Mohammed] bin Salman is playing on several fronts. He also finances Islamic places in Europe which represents a territory of expansion of Islam. He is suspected of promoting an Islamist agenda,” he observes.
CRITICISM OF SAUDI ARABIA
- Civil war in Yemen since 2014
- 2018 assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a 15-man Saudi commando
- Restricted women's rights (marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, etc.)
- LGBT+ rights not recognized, liable to the death penalty
- Repressed rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly
- Existence of capital punishment and mass executions
- Arbitrary detentions before deportation, imprisonment
THE PUBLIC INVESTMENT FUND D SAUDI ARABIA (PIF) AT A GLANCE
- 5th largest sovereign wealth fund in the world
- Assets: US$620 billion
- 2025 target: US$1.1 trillion
- Investments in: Lucid, Activision/Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Über, Live Nation, Zoom Video, Meta (Facebook), Disney, Nintendo, Costco, PayPal
SPORTS LAUNDRY (SPORTWASHING) IN BRIEF
Controversial practice of a company or country using investment in sports to improve its reputation. (Source: Collins Dictionary)
Examples in history:
- 1936 Berlin Olympics
- Purchase of the PSG club by the Qatari Sovereign Fund (2011)
- Sochi Olympic Games in Russia (2014)
- Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in Formula 1
- Beijing Olympic Games (2022)< /li>
- Soccer World Cup in Russia (2018)
- Soccer World Cup in Qatar (2022)
LIVE NATION AT A GLANCE
- World leader in the entertainment industry, promoter of shows and events , ticket sales
- Value: $20.1 billion
- Major shareholders: Liberty Media (30.3%), Vanguard Groupe (6.7%), PIF (5.7%)
- Chief Operating Officer: Michael Rapino
- Chairman of the Board: Gregory Maffei (Liberty Media)
- Tickets sold in 2021: 282 million
- International presence: 45 countries
- Management of more than 450 artists
- Owner of TicketMaster since 2010
The ability of a state to influence and direct its relations in order to achieve its objectives using diplomacy and persuasion rather than force.  ;
Saudi Arabia and its delusions of grandeur
➤ The Middle Eastern country wants to create futuristic city megaprojects
Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in sports and entertainment to fuel futuristic city megaprojects in its territory.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who sees an enthusiastic and ambitious Saudi society propelled by a booming economy, launched its “Vision 2030” plan for Saudi Arabia to prosper in an era that will no longer be limited to oil.
The money made with hydrocarbons allows it to invest in many sectors on an international scale. By 2025, the capital of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) is intended to double to reach $1.1 trillion.
The State is not ready to turn to green energy as he tries to make it heard, say climate experts. At the recent COP27, Aramco big boss Amin Nasser delivered a mixed message when he said “the world needs more investment in oil and gas, not less”.
“The Saudis went to COP27 with a green hat to extol the virtues of their plan, but it is a state that continues to benefit greatly from the destructive practices at the root of the climate crisis, explained the activist of the NGO Global Witness Alice Harrison, to the Associated Press. Any exhibition, conference and performance to the contrary is pure green bleaching.”
Despite everything, the Saudis are turned towards “Vision 2030”, a plan articulated around 13 sectors of the economy. This will increase the ecological impacts. The futuristic megaproject in the Neom region, located in a desert province in the northwest, is also part of this plan.
Neom is a key element of a major project. Carbon-neutral and worth $500 billion, it stretches between the Red Sea and Tabuk.
In fact, it is in Neom that we will find “The Line”, a linear city of 200 m wide, 500 m high and 170 km long and whose construction began last month. This will be covered with gigantic mirrors.
Qiddiya, a city near Riyadh destined to become the capital of entertainment, leisure and sports, is also one of the prince's major projects. Located 45 km west of the capital, it extends over 360 square km.
If all goes as planned, there will be amusement parks, cinemas, amphitheatres, stadium and golf course. golf.
“These projects will respond to this new Saudi elite who have graduated from major Western universities. This seeks the lifestyle encountered outside Saudi Arabia,” comments Sami Aoun, professor of applied politics at the University of Sherbrooke and director of the Observatory on the Middle East and North Africa.< /p>
“This does not mean that this generation needs a liberal democracy and to accept 'failing' morality, as the religious and Islamists say, he continues. Bin Salman wants an opening.”
Vision 2030 is also no stranger to Saudi Arabia securing the 2029 Asian Winter Games. A decision that obviously drew criticism because of the inhospitable place, the respect for the environment and the staggering costs. These games will take place in the Neom megaproject.
According to Sami Aoun, the ideas of grandeur of the crown prince resemble those of other authoritarian autocrats who have marked history. He wants to dominate with his purchasing power.
“He demonstrates this madness of grandeur that is generally recognized in enlightened despots, recalls Mr. Aoun. He faces a lot of criticism. But if we compare his projects to other major projects in history, such as the Suez Canal, which was also utopian, he understands the issues and wants to prepare for the future. The future will tell us if he was right.”
“You have to add this rivalry with its ally and neighbor the United Arab Emirates. He doesn't see why they succeeded with Dubai and why he can't succeed.”
Ben Salman is somehow also suffering from the inflatable neighbor syndrome. Stung by Qatar, who won the World Cup this year, he also wanted to host an international event. No wonder he won the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
His megaprojects are also being replicated in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as he believes he can surpass the ultramodern city.
A disturbing authoritarian regime
Through his sadistic actions and political alliances since he came to the highest levels of power in Saudi Arabia in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman has tarnished his image internationally.
Among other things, he has led the Saudi military operation in the civil war in Yemen in addition to carrying out a purge in the state to accentuate its power. He is also accused of ordering the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“Khashoggi's murder ruined his image, and his rapprochement with Vladimir Putin tarnished it even more,” observes political scientist Sami Aoun.
According to the American organization Death Penalty Information Center, the regime has notably executed 173 people by stoning over the past two years, including 81 men in a single day in March.
Our Office of investigation was able to speak with a Saudi dissident who was a political refugee in Canada. He requested anonymity saying he feared for his safety.
“Saudi Arabia has never really done well on human rights. And since the arrival of the crown prince ben Salman, it is worse. He accentuated the oppression on the people and would do anything to achieve his goals. If someone refuses his ideas, it is impossible for him to hold on. He’s a real psychopath,” he says with emotion.
According to him, bin Salman's image is tarnished forever. No matter his strategies and his vision for the future, the authoritarian leader will not be able to attract sympathy from the West.
Many observers believe that the Saudi prince is much closer authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The dissident we spoke to believes that Saudi Arabia will not be able to carry out its futuristic “Vision 2030” plan, as foreign investors are put off by its poor human rights record.
“Bin Salman has a very bad reputation because of his actions, which explains why many of his mega projects are not supported by foreign investors, says the one who is still hunted by the regime. No one really wants to try their luck with him.”
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