A federal magistrate judge has ordered Yasir al-Rumayyan, the leader of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, to sit for a deposition as part of the ongoing legal battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, a sport-splitting circuit. The decision, which was made public on Thursday night in California, followed an interim legal dispute over the sovereign immunity of Saudi Arabia and the reach of its laws. The ruling could shed light on the operations of the Saudi wealth fund and the power of its governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, over its foreign investments.
LIV Golf, backed by the Saudi wealth fund, has offered some of the most lucrative contracts in golf history to entice elite players away from the PGA Tour. Players such as Sergio García, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, and Cameron Smith have signed on, but the PGA Tour and its supporters complain that LIV Golf is promoting a diluted version of the game and helping Saudi Arabia distract from its record on human rights.
The PGA Tour has argued that LIV Golf is subservient to the desires and whims of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), formally known as the Saudi wealth fund, and its chairman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. During a hearing before Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen in January, the PGA Tour’s lawyer, Eliot Peters, relied heavily on a shareholder agreement that he said demonstrated the scope of Saudi influence over LIV Golf. Peters asserted that the PIF had to consent to the league’s operating budget, player participation agreements, sponsorship deals, certain broadcasting contracts, and the commencement of litigation, including the lawsuit in San Jose that gave rise to the subpoenas demanding documents and testimony from the fund and al-Rumayyan.
The PIF’s lawyers argued that Peters had exaggerated the extent of al-Rumayyan’s role, or at least misinterpreted it, and that compliance with the PGA Tour’s demands would violate Saudi law. John Bash, a lawyer for the PIF, told van Keulen that deposing al-Rumayyan would be analogous to the US Treasury secretary being susceptible to the demands of a Saudi court if a company owned by the American government faced litigation in Riyadh. However, van Keulen ruled that it was “plain” that the PIF was “not a mere investor in LIV” and that al-Rumayyan “was personally involved in and himself carried out many” of the PIF’s activities to create and develop LIV.
The PIF is expected to ask a federal judge in San Jose, California, to review van Keulen’s decision. In November, the PIF’s lawyers argued that the fund “does not control LIV’s day-to-day operations” and included a sworn statement from al-Rumayyan, who said it provided only “high-level oversight” of LIV.
The legal battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf is the latest chapter in the sport’s ongoing struggle to balance its commercial interests with its moral obligations. The PGA Tour and its supporters have criticized LIV Golf for its alleged links to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, while LIV Golf and its champions say they are seeking to revive a sport whose professional level has grown stale.
The PGA Tour’s legal battle with LIV Golf has been brewing for some time, and the sport’s top players have been caught in the middle. In January 2021, a group of top players signed on to play in the Saudi International, a tournament sponsored by the PIF, despite calls from human rights groups to boycott the event. The move was seen as a sign of the players’ willingness to put money ahead of moral considerations, and it sparked a backlash from golf fans and commentators alike.