All eyes were on Cristiano Ronaldo when he decided to move to Saudi Arabia earlier this year to join the Al-Nassr team. As shocking as his move was, Ronaldo started a trend where many big names, such as Karim Benzema and Neymar Junior to name a few, followed suit, moving to the Kingdom to join the Saudi Pro League.
The Kingdom also extended offers to renowned players Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, and Mohammed Salah; however, these offers were turned down.
What does the Kingdom stand to gain from spending millions of dollars to recruit these players? What is the viability and sustainability of such a strategy?
For decades, the Kingdom has mainly relied on oil and the substantial revenue it generates, casting aside other lucrative sources of income. However, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious 2030 vision, the Kingdom has been working to diversify its economy so that it is no longer reliant on, nor ever at the mercy of, a volatile commodity. This has been evident in the several overly ambitious projects taken up by the Kingdom, which include the development of a billion-dollar megacity (Nihal, 2023). The crown prince aims to transform Saudi Arabia into an economic, technological, and entertainment hub. As a result, this has driven the Kingdom to invest heavily in many different sectors in order to eventually attain such a goal.
Where does the game of football fit in?
Going all the way back to the time of ancient Greece, sports and politics have been intertwined. Sports and sporting events have been used, and continue to be used, as tools by states to project soft power, “to promote themselves, leverage political and economic goals, regenerate, expose local products, local businesses, the local culture, promote tourism, and thus improve their international image” (Dubinsky, 2019). This is exactly what the Kingdom hopes to achieve.
The Kingdom has been investing heavily in sports, not just football, as a way of diversifying its income, all while projecting a specific image of itself to the outside world. Hosting the Formula One race, taking over the game of golf, acquiring Newcastle United, and hand-picking only the best of the best players in every sport, the Kingdom is sparing no expense in its attempt to showcase itself as a hegemonic power.
The Kingdom’s investment in these players is a genius move. These players are public figures, watched and followed by millions of people around the world. These players will live in Saudi Arabia, enjoying the benefits of their contracts all while promoting the Kingdom and its lavish amenities. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been regarded as conservative and backwards, making it an unpopular destination for tourists. However, these internationally renowned players have the power to change the narrative and alter preconceived notions about the Kingdom. This is bound to draw more and more attention to the Kingdom, attracting more tourists and more investments.
This would serve as a huge boost for the Saudi economy as well as its world image. According to reports, Neymar Junior is set to receive 430,000 euros for every social media post in which he promotes Saudi Arabia (Inside Sport, 2023). The Kingdom is playing smart. Neymar is one of the most popular and marketable players in the world, making him the perfect individual to be assigned the task of endorsing the Kingdom.
The brilliance behind the Kingdom’s strategy aside, it is important to question how sustainable it really is. A previous attempt by China in 2016 to do what Saudi Arabia is currently doing ended up failing miserably. China spent millions of dollars on recruiting big names from different renowned football clubs such as Chelsea and Atletico Madrid; however, the momentum it once possessed has gradually died down.
“The expensive recruits have gone. Top teams have disappeared with alarming regularity. The national team shows little sign of improvement. And in perhaps the most direct sign of a failed policy, some of the top officials charged with leading China’s soccer revolution have been detained amid allegations of corruption.” (Panja, 2023)
As a result of a series of unfortunate events, compounded with the negative effects of the pandemic, China lost its sparkle. The question is then, will the same happen with Saudi Arabia? The Kingdom has the money required to keep up its huge investment in the sports sector, as the Saudi Private Investment Fund is estimated to be worth 700 billion dollars (Kelly & Nereim, 2023). However, will the revenue from the Kingdom’s investment meet or exceed the cost? Many view the Saudi Pro League as a retirement league for players who are no longer in their prime years (Barzani, 2023). Looking at the players that the Kingdom has successfully recruited, they are all in their thirties.
Furthermore, “Europe solidly remains the international soccer hub, with the world’s major competitions taking place on that continent.” (Barzani, 2023) Saudi Arabia is currently playing a game of poker, taking big risks in hopes of a bigger reward. Whether this gamble will yield any rewards, only time will tell. Such a matter will mainly depend on the Kingdom’s ability to keep the current momentum going. It also has to be noted that Saudi Arabia is not China. Saudi Arabia has a much better and stronger record than China ever did when it comes to the game of football.
The Kingdom has qualified for the FIFA World Cup six times, unlike China’s one-time wonder in 2002 (Duerden, 2022). Furthermore, in the most recent FIFA World Cup of 2022, Saudi Arabia’s team won over the Argentinian team. A historic moment for the Kingdom, this win has placed the Saudi team on people’s radar. Saudi Arabia has also won the AFC Asian Cup three times, and is set to host the event in 2027 (Ahram Online, 2023).
To the West, Saudi Arabia is guilty of sports-washing, investing heavily in sports, using the players it recruits, and shining the spotlight on them in order to divert attention from other ongoing political controversies such as Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, or a poor human rights record for example (Michaelson, 2023). However, to the Kingdom, this is a unique opportunity to expand and assert its influence. Nelson Mandela once said, “sport has the power to change the world;” to the Saudi Crown Prince however, changing the Kingdom will suffice.
The writer is a researcher at BUC’s Center for Global Affairs. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo. Her research interests include International Relations, Conflict and Security Studies, Foreign Policy, and Comparative Politics.