The Rise of Sportswashing

Issue Date April 2023
Volume 34
Issue 2
Page Numbers 62–76
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Autocrats are investing vast sums in the global sports sector—a practice critics call sportswashing. The term, though relatively new, rests on a millennia-old conviction that sports offer opportunistic actors a vehicle for reputation-laundering. But recent developments in the football industry reveal a shift in how autocrats are approaching the practice. This paper explores the investment empires of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to show how autocratic actors are scaling their activities to segments of the sector’s value chain once thought beyond the reach of states. These activities make use of sophisticated forms of information manipulation, weaving Gulf interests into the fabric of open societies. Only by understanding the mechanics of sportswashing can democratic actors recognize, prioritize, and counter this emerging and disruptive form of autocratic influence.

About the Author

Sarath K. Ganji is a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and has been a U.S. Fulbright Scholar based in the Arabian Gulf. His work explores the role of sports in autocratic regimes’ global influence operations.

View all work by Sarath K. Ganji