"Our main goal is to develop and bring the game of golf to all citizens of Saudi Arabia over the next decade"

Majed Al Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, has – among other ambitious objectives – set himself the goal over the next decade of encouraging one million of his compatriots to experience the benefits and pleasures of golf for the first time (the country has around 36 million inhabitants) – and for golf, through the following decade, to reach the entire population.

Ongoing plans to organise men's and women's tournaments at a global level and to build top-level courses designed by the most renowned international golf architects are just some of the initiatives aimed at giving Saudi Arabia an increasingly prominent presence on the world golfing scene.

In this exclusive interview for Andalucía Golf/España Golf, the man at the helm of golf in Saudi Arabia offers fascinating insight into projects aimed at boosting the sport, and the golf industry in general, in his country.

What prompted the authorities in Saudi Arabia to make such a strong commitment to golf?

Golf Saudi was formally launched at the end of 2018, with me at the helm as the first CEO. This decision was prompted by both the Ministry of Sports and His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the first (and current) Chairman of Golf Saudi and the Governor of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of Saudi Aramco. The rationale behind their decision was to facilitate the uptake of golf in Saudi Arabia within the sporting framework of Vision 2030.

What are the key objectives for Golf Saudi when it comes to the ongoing development of golf in your country, in the short and medium term?

At Golf Saudi we are mainly focused on our long-term targets and our ultimate ambition is to develop and bring the game of golf to all citizens of Saudi Arabia over the next decade. Ahead of 2030, our future vision is clear:

  • Educate, integrate and champion the great game of golf, as a catalyst of Vision 2030 and Quality of Life 2020.
  • Strategically invest in all levels of the sport to establish a new ecosystem in Saudi Arabia, whereby the game and its socio-economic benefits can flourish.
  • Provide residents of Saudi Arabia unparalleled access, via traditional and modern means, to embrace the skills required to enjoy the game 
  • Increase golf club membership to 20,000.
  • Ensure over one million Saudis have actively tried golf.
  • Attract at least 5,000 international golf visitors per annum.
  • Host 60,000 visitors to Saudi-based golfing events every year.
  • Oversee the construction of more than 20 new golf courses.

A by-product of this strategy will be the development of elite players, who will go on to represent Saudi Arabia on the international stage, validating the measures undertaken to grow the game. 

Our role is to carefully steward the game’s national integration at every level and provide clear pathways for all vested parties to create a long-term, sustainable golf ecosystem.

One of the stated aims of Golf Saudi is to achieve massive golfing participation by Saudi Arabians. How do you plan to facilitate access to golf for citizens throughout the kingdom?

That is exactly what we plan on doing. We are very much focused on the delivery of world-class facilities, operational excellence and the implementation of international best practice in order to generate widespread uptake in the game by Saudi citizens. To do this, we are building a series of Mass Participation programmes to introduce, educate and entertain citizens about golf. A key goal of ours is to offer a first touch point of golf to over a million first-time golfers. This will be done through both on and off-course programs, through which citizens can hear and learn more about the game before deciding whether to take it up for themselves. This all part of our ultimate aim at Golf Saudi to allow the Kingdom to meet its bold yet achievable target of seeing over one million Saudis actively try the game of golf by the end of the decade, through offering regular opportunities for introductory lessons by Golf Saudi/PGA professionals.

What role do women have in your country’s golf development?

Our vision is to grow golf across the Kingdom and make it both accessible and enjoyable to all women. At Golf Saudi we want to inspire many women to take up the great game of golf and awaken their interest in this wonderful sport. Golf Saudi ensures women have complete access to all golf facilities.

We have been working closely with the Ladies European Tour and last November we hosted back-to-back tournaments, with the Aramco Saudi Ladies International presented by Public Investment Fund and the Saudi Ladies Team International: the first-ever professional women’s golf events to take place in the Kingdom, which has inspired Saudi women to take up an interest in golf.

The tournament was a monumental moment for the country and helped us create a platform that attracts women from around the Kingdom to come and witness top-flight sports stars compete and to set the pace for joining the global equality movement. By hosting some of the best females in the world, we were able to inspire the next generation of young female Saudis, and looking ahead hopefully we will be able to foster the next generation of female Saudi golfers.

At Golf Saudi we saw the huge value in hosting a women’s golf event, presenting the opportunity to help drive a “journey of change” and to accelerate the course of transformation that Saudi Arabia is already on by providing equal access to sport for the next generation. As a result, on the back of the tournament we created the “Ladies First Club”, an initiative for Saudi women offering complimentary membership, inclusive of golf lessons, driving range access and full 18-hole rounds on three different courses. It was opened to the first 1,000 Saudi women who signed-up and membership had to close in just four days due to high demand.

Helping to develop the talent of promising young golfers is a cornerstone of Golf Saudi’s strategy. How do you envisage achieving this?

Our mass participation strategy is pivotal. We have spent time understanding the local market and its characteristics. Sixty per cent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, so we need to ensure our development programmes are relevant and targeted at the right audience segments. For Golf Saudi this is being driven via our ongoing schools’ partnerships, access to lessons and a promotional strategy that is setting out to create awareness via our “Let It Fly” campaign.

There will be a distinct balance between modern and traditional developments. There are plans to look at creating mobile activation solutions that expose the general public to an array of iterations of the sport: putting courses, simulator golf and introductory programmes such as SNAG golf to stimulate interest.

We are also looking at the type of golf course developments in consideration of what will trigger the best response amongst potential players and beginners. For example, we have plans to look at how municipal-style golf is utilised to provide easy and affordable access, but also a form of the game that accommodates the vast majority’s standing as beginners. Wider landing areas, with less complicated carries and firmer running surfaces, are being reviewed to ensure we give people the best chance of sticking at the game, and avoid them turning away from golf.

We are developing academies and have included training facilities across many of our initial development plans. This will include entertainment options, such as TopGolf, but they have been created to ensure we have access for current players or those who have shown an interest or an initial flair for the game.

One of our strategies to ensure we address any major obstacles also involves hosting future conferences. In 2020, we were lucky enough to host the inaugural Golf Saudi Summit (2-4 February 2020), which brought together industry captains primarily to do business, but also to work with us on debating how best to mobilise new ways of thinking and working to ensure we strike the right chord and deliver in accordance with our mandate.

Following your country’s experience as the host of European Tour events (three Saudi Internationals) and the Ladies European Tour (Saudi Ladies Team International), are you planning to continue along this path of attracting major international professional golf events – and also possibly other tournaments with an even greater media impact? 

Most definitely! We will continue to host more professional tour events in both the men and the women’s game. For example, take this year’s 2021 Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers... the tournament had an incredible roll of honour that included five Race to Dubai champions, 21 major championship trophies by 10 different players, 75-plus PGA Tour victories among the field, 250-plus European Tour victories among the field and 74 Ryder Cup appearances by 24 players, as well as five former world number one players. Hosting the very best players from both the European and Ladies European Tour allows us at Golf Saudi to tell many new and different storylines about the Kingdom and all the country has to offer. This is a major bonus for us and why we choose to make such significant investments in the game. It is clear that all of our tournaments (since the first Saudi International in 2019) have been picked up extensively by both large domestic and global audiences, meaning people were and continue to engage with our events in multiple ways, which can only be viewed as a good thing for us.

How do you view golf from a tourist perspective – that is, transforming your country into an attractive golfing destination at an international level?

Obviously the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and early 2021 has made things incredibly tough for every country, government and organisation globally. However, being only at the very start of our touristic journey in Saudi Arabia (visas were first issued in late 2019), the Kingdom’s unique proposition is only just beginning to play a key supporting role to the development of our country – and in time will no doubt provide a very welcome positive economic impact.

Saudi Arabia has a unique geography when you analyse its proximity to mature golf markets. When you consider the diversity of landscape type, and the sheer natural beauty, alongside the developing hospitality sector, with major hotel chains and a swathe of leisure attractions, the overarching final product has ambitions to be amongst the very best in the world and welcome a wide range of visitor types. As such, we are already in conversations with many of the developments currently underway in Saudi Arabia to ensure that a quality golf offering is an integral part of the tourism plans for the Kingdom.

Does the fact that Jack Nicklaus is designing one of the future golf courses in Saudi Arabia imply that other new projects will also be developed by leading international designers?

Continuing on the tourism theme, the news that the world’s greatest ever player in the game of golf will be overseeing his first course development in Saudi Arabia – a championship golf course for Qiddiya, Saudi Arabia’s capital of entertainment, sports and the arts – is immense and a ground-breaking piece of news for the Kingdom. The course, located 40 minutes from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, is under design and is awaiting commencement of construction.

Both Nicklaus Design and Golf Saudi are working closely with STRI, Atlas Turf and GEO to ensure that the course at Qiddiya which we develop maximises environmental sustainability from initial land evaluation all the way through to construction methodology, including the project’s everyday operations and the creation of an environmental golfing legacy.

As mentioned previously, tourism is about to become an important economic driver not only for Saudi Arabia but also for Golf Saudi, as golfers look to travel globally and play new courses. Therefore we want to focus on infrastructure as part of our mandate to grow the game of golf within the country. By becoming involved in Qiddiya, we at Golf Saudi want to help invigorate that interest and encourage Saudis to take up the game and become registered golfers and help to create a golfing nation out of a country where golf is not a mainstream sport amongst the local population.