Scrutiny of a Saudi-owned golf league in the wake of its announced merger with the PGA Tour is creating apparent tensions between Republican Party organs and a prominent operative who did work lobbying for the Saudi golf firm.
Gail Gitcho, a prominent Republican strategist who did public relations work for the Saudi government-owned LIV Golf, was listed as serving on the board of the GOP-affiliated Women’s Democracy Network through 2023, according to a press release from 2021 announcing her appointment to the advisory board.
When LIV erupted into the news, though, Austin Akers, a spokesperson for the Women’s Democracy Network, told The Intercept that the group had no relationship with Gitcho.
“Gail Gitcho is not an active member of IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network Board and hasn’t been for three years,” Akers said, referring to the initials of WDN’s parent, the International Republican Institute. “Any questions on her activities as a private citizen should be directed to her.”
Following The Intercept’s inquiry, the Women’s Democracy Network scrubbed Gitcho’s profile from its website; her page was still online as recently as Tuesday evening. Gitcho did not respond to a request for comment.
On May 25, Gitcho registered retroactively as a foreign agent of Saudi Arabia for her work creating marketing materials for the league, as well as providing media training. As a result, several days later Gitcho was fired from her role as senior adviser for Republican Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential campaign, which said that it had not been aware of Gitcho’s work for Riyadh.
LIV Golf, the golf tour owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, announced Tuesday that it would be merging with the North America-based PGA Tour, the world’s most recognized and prestigious golf league. LIV has been roundly criticized as an attempt by the oil-rich kingdom to draw attention away from its fraught human rights record and ingratiate itself to the West.
“It’s not just an attempt to sportswash Saudi Arabia’s image,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy in Arab World Now, told The Intercept, “but represents a dramatic expansion of Saudi infiltration into all sectors of the American economy; specifically in order to avoid a situation where Americans would respond and react to terrible abuses, as they did when Jamal Khashoggi was murdered.”
“It’s not just an attempt to sportswash Saudi Arabia’s image, but represents a dramatic expansion of Saudi infiltration into all sectors of the American economy.”
Among the issues Saudi Arabia has taken flak for is its treatment of women. Moves in recent years like announcing women’s right to drive were dismissed by critics as cosmetic — not least because they were accompanied by crackdowns, including torture, on women’s rights activists. That crackdown has continued, with other purported reforms coming for criticism as well.
According to the Women’s Democracy Network’s website, it “empowers women around the world to participate in the political process” — one which does not exist in Saudi Arabia, a theocracy ruled by a 37-year-old crown prince. The Women’s Democracy Network was established in 2006 by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government-funded organization staffed largely by members of the Republican Party.
Gitcho has handled communications for a myriad of prominent Republicans, including serving as communications director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the Republican Governors Association, as press secretary for the Republican National Committee and, more recently, as communications adviser for Republican Herschel Walker’s failed campaign for a Senate seat from Georgia. Gitcho also served as an adviser for the campaign of Norm Coleman, the former Minnesota Republican senator who himself has emerged as a major lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia’s investments in large swathes of the American economy, including these prominent sporting institutions, is matched only by its spending on American politicians: buying them up as soon as they leave office and wooing their influence while they’re still in office,” Whitson said. “There’s definitely a mass influence campaign.”
Through LIV Golf, Saudi Arabia has established ties with Republican presidential candidates beyond just Ramaswamy. Gitcho’s firm, Gitcho Goodwin, was contracted to work for LIV Golf by two subsidiaries of consulting firm GP3 Partners. Phil Cox, who founded GP3, is a former senior adviser to Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. Cox also worked with DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down.
Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he’s called, has cultivated unusually close ties with the Republican Party, particularly former President Donald Trump. Following the grisly murder of Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi in 2018, Trump cast doubt on his own intelligence community’s assessment that the killing was ordered by MBS.
“I saved his ass,” Trump later boasted, of his attempts to protect MBS.
Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie blasted Trump on Tuesday for what he called “grift” regarding Saudi Arabia. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, who both served in senior roles in his White House, have established business ties with Saudi Arabia.
“The grift from this family is breathtaking,” Christie said. “Jared Kushner and Ivanka Kushner walk out of the White House and months later get $2 billion from the Saudis?”
Within six months of leaving government, Kushner’s investment firm received a $2 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — the very same sovereign wealth fund bankrolling LIV Golf. Though Saudi bureaucrats objected to the investment, citing the inexperience of Kushner’s firm, they were overridden by MBS, who controls the sovereign fund.
When LIV Golf announced on Tuesday that it was merging with the PGA Tour, Trump praised the decision.
“Great news from LIV golf,” Trump said on his social media platform Truth Social. “A big, beautiful, and glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf.”