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US court orders LIV's Saudi Arabian backers to turn over information in PGA case

The kingdom's Public Investment Fund and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, will be forced to sit for deposition in a case between the Saudi-backed league and PGA
Yasir al-Rumayyan, chair of the Saudi PIF, takes part in the Pro-Am round of the LIV Golf Invitational Series event at the Centurion Club in St Albans, England on 8 June 2022 (AFP)

A federal judge has dismissed claims of sovereign immunity by LIV Golf's financial backer, Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, forcing them to turn over information connected to a legal case between the upstart league and PGA.

Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen, in the US District Court of Northern District of California, rejected the argument by the PIF and Rumayyan that they didn't need to comply with US courts because they are part of a foreign government. 

"It is plain that PIF is not a mere investor in LIV; it is the moving force behind the founding, funding, oversight, and operation of LIV," van Keulen wrote in her decision.

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"PIF's actions are indisputably the type of actions by which a private party engages in trade and traffic or commerce," she added.

The LIV and PGA have been engaged in a legal battle over the past year, after a number of key golf stars decided to sign with the Saudi-backed league, including three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who said LIV gave him and golfers willing to participate "leverage" against the PGA Tour.

Last August, several players and LIV Golf sued the PGA on anti-trust grounds. Then in September, the PGA filed a countersuit against LIV, accusing it of luring its players to breach their contracts by offering them multimillion-dollar deals. 

'Effective control over LIV'

Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It has emerged as the main vehicle for the prince's attempts to overhaul the kingdom's oil-dependent economy.

Besides backing LIV, the fund acquired the English Premier League football club Newcastle United FC in 2021 and also considered buying Formula 1 motor racing last year.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has sought to boost the kingdom's holdings in sports and entertainment. While he has pushed through sweeping social reforms he has also overseen a crackdown on dissent, and critics have accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in "sportswashing" to cover up its human rights record.

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The US court ruled against the PIF's appeal, saying that its conduct falls within the commercial activity exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.

"There is no serious dispute that PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan possess highly relevant discovery in the underlying action. PIF created, funded, and owns LIV; PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan have had effective control over LIV from its inception," the court filing said.

The PIF and Rumayyan will now be forced to sit for deposition, though they will be able to do so either in the US or Saudi Arabia.

This is the latest case in which the topic of foreign immunity has arisen in US legal matters pertaining to Saudi Arabia.

Last year, the Biden administration said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should have immunity in a lawsuit filed against him in the US over the murder of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, citing his position as a "sitting head of government of a foreign state".

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