Golfing the sun over the sunset.

A few months ago, an intriguing opportunity surfaced: I was invited to deliver keynote speeches in The Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. That’s a huge trip from North Carolina, and I was honored by the invitation. The parties involved embraced my speaking rates and topics, eagerly anticipating my ideas on the future of work with a particular focus on local issues.

However, I could not accept the invitation to speak in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, because it didn’t align with my principles. It was as simple as that.


Why did I turn down speaking in Saudi Arabia? Every country, including the United States, is complicated. But I have concerns about the Kingdom. Many critics contend that freedom of expression is dramatically curtailed in Saudi Arabia. Journalists, activists, and critics of the government have found themselves imprisoned and, in some cases, even assassinated on foreign soil. The high-profile murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 pushed this issue into the international spotlight.

Despite recent reforms, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women remains a concern. As recently as 2018, women were forbidden from driving. The women’s rights activists who championed this right were subsequently incarcerated in the same year, mere months before the driving ban was lifted. Prominent among these activists are Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef. Many such advocates for women’s rights remain in prison or under house arrest to this day.

Additionally, remnants of the male guardianship system continue to loom over Saudi Arabian society. This system dictates that a woman requires a male guardian’s permission—usually a father, brother, husband, or son—for certain activities or decisions. Although the requirements have been somewhat relaxed, they constrain women’s autonomy and decision-making abilities.

Saudi law demands that women don an abaya (a loose-fitting cloak) publicly. Even though enforcement of this rule has slackened in recent years, especially for Western women visiting the Kingdom, the law remains on the books. It symbolizes control over women’s bodily autonomy. A prominent fitness influencer named Manahel al-Otaibi was arrested for challenging this rule.

Family law in Saudi Arabia also demonstrates a bias against women. Men can divorce their wives without reason, while women must meet specific criteria to initiate divorce proceedings. Moreover, women do not enjoy equal rights in disputes over child custody.

And despite increased participation of women in the workforce, obstacles persist in Saudi Arabia, fueled by societal attitudes and gender segregation at work.

Reports of migrant workers facing exploitative conditions in the kafala system, including confiscation of passports, non-payment of wages, poor living conditions, and limited access to legal redress, are also concerning. Minority women, such as migrant workers and Shia Muslim women like Salma al-Shehab, encounter additional discrimination and rights abuses.

Saudi Arabia, which has one of the highest rates of executions globally, includes non-violent offenses in its capital punishments. Concerns about the fairness of trials and the use of torture to extract confessions are widespread.

And Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy that does not allow the public practice of any religion other than Islam. There have been reports of discrimination and violence against religious minorities.

Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, with punishments ranging from death, imprisonment, and corporal punishment to fines.

Reports of arbitrary and prolonged pretrial detention and deplorable conditions in detention centers have emerged. At least six U.S. citizens are reportedly detained or under “travel bans” in the Kingdom.

That’s a lot. Now, I must reiterate that no country is perfect. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has its own human rights issues, some of which overlap with those found in Saudi Arabia. The Netherlands is a global leader in human rights with robust protections for LGBTQ+ rights, gender equality, and freedom of speech; however, it grapples with discrimination, intolerance, inadequate treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, police brutality, and even gender inequality. And America is absolutely messy these days. Yet, a trip to Riyadh remained a step too far for me, particularly given Saudi Arabia’s historic links to the 9/11 attacks.

What’s 9/11 got to do with this? Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi nationals. These attackers were affiliated with Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden—a Saudi-born figure. Several 9/11 victims’ families have sought to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in U.S. courts, alleging that the Saudi government and various Saudi individuals and institutions offered material support to the hijackers and Al-Qaeda. While these allegations remain unproven, they add to my unease.


So, I declined the offer to speak in Saudi Arabia while offering to speak in Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi. But the organizers reasonably insisted on a speaker for all three locations for continuity. How can I disagree with that? The person they chose is great, and as a long-time keynote speaker, I know that delivering a consistent message across markets is key to a remarkable event experience.

But saying no was hard. It’s expensive to be principled. And it’s tough because we all collude with capitalism to some degree. As a capitalist, I understand the importance of being visible and accepting speaking opportunities. But this one wasn’t right for me. So, without much fanfare, I wished the event planners well, let the opportunity go, and all was fine until earlier this week when the PGA decided to merge with LIV Golf.

That’s when I started thinking about how the world is hot, flat, and connected (as Thomas Friedman says).


LIV Golf, founded in 2021, began its inaugural season in 2022. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), owns it.

Criticism towards the PIF stems from its ties to the Saudi government, which has been implicated in the aforementioned human rights complaints. Critics believe that PIF investments could potentially sportswash issues related to restrictions on freedom of speech, political repression, mistreatment of migrant workers, gender discrimination, and involvement in the Yemen conflict. (Oh yes, there’s a war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It’s brutal. Did you know?)

Concerns are further amplified by the PIF’s operations and opaque relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). The potential for national security concerns, corruption, misuse of funds, and a lack of transparency and accountability are substantial and very real. But when LIV Golf launched, several golfers left the PGA to join, incentivized by significant contracts funded by the PIF. Phil Mickelson reportedly signed a $200 million contract, and Dustin Johnson ($150 million), Bryson DeChambeau ($125 million), Brooks Koepka ($100 million), and Cameron Smith ($100 million) followed suit.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan appealed to golfers’ patriotism to maintain the PGA’s stability, using personal stories of those impacted by 9/11. His poignant question was, “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

However, in an unexpected twist, the PGA Tour announced a merger with LIV Golf to “unify the game of golf.” And Monahan is spinning this merger as an entirely new entity that will have more power, not less, than LIV. And he will reward legacy PGA players for their loyalty.

What a hero!


Doing business anywhere on the planet is complicated. In my professional circle, one HR colleague believes in traveling to Saudi Arabia as an ambassador for democracy, women’s rights, and a Western approach to work. To her, it feels like a mission and duty. Others in my network believe they are entitled to work wherever they can earn a living. That’s how late-stage capitalism works when you’re a resident of a Western nation.

Then there are individuals, such as myself, who have a unique perspective and strive to lead a life guided by principles. Despite our efforts, we may never be wealthy.

Regarding golf, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have criticized LIV in the past and refused to join. However, their ultimate stance on this new entity remains to be seen. It looks like Rory is trying to differentiate between LIV and PIF. Tiger, as of this morning, remains silent. He’s among several notable athletes who declined Saudi money, so I hope his influence holds sway in the broader golf community. But many professional golfers welcome the merger and resent being labeled as un-American due to their association with LIV. The response “I just want to play golf” has been a common rebuttal — as if their human rights have been violated. (Not yet, at least!)

So, here’s what I know: I may never become rich by turning down lucrative speaking opportunities in far-flung locations across the globe, but unlike Phil Mickelson, I’ll never have to apologize to the families of the victims of 9/11. While I’m imperfect, that feels like a good way to live. You might want to apply that philosophy to your life, too.