And while Saudi Arabia may not have his boots on the pitch, Inter Miami star recruit Lionel Messi is also on the payroll, seeing out a lucrative contract with its tourism authority.
Over the past five years the Gulf state, through its sovereign wealth fund, has been steadily nabbing global sporting tournaments and events from wrestling to Formula 1, Formula E (electric motor racing), golf, boxing and e-sports. In 2021, it secured majority ownership in a $587 million acquisition of Newcastle United. For Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, with assets of at least $US778 billion, money is no object.
It’s a fortune the petro-kingdom is more than willing to spend, as it hurries to diversify its economy ahead of a global energy transition away from oil.
The first eight months of this year have seen Saudi Arabia secure a controversial merger between its start-up LIV golf tournament and the US PGA golf tour, privatise four of its major league clubs and open the chequebook for a bevy of high-value soccer players.
“A lot of people have been really taken aback by how quickly things have moved, this year in particular,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and the geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in France. “But I would counter that and say, ‘Have you not been paying attention for the last eight years?’ Because this has been simmering for quite a while.”
Luring the world’s best sporting stars to play in one’s national league is an expensive business, and it takes more than eye-watering pay-cheques.
To secure Brazilian powerhouse Neymar, who spent six years with Paris St Germain, Saudi’s Al Hilal will roll out a fleet of luxury cars, a 25-room house with three saunas and a 40-metre pool, and fridges fully stocked with his favourite Acai juice, the British press has reported.
Ronaldo, too, has enjoyed the high life since signing a rumoured $339 million-a-year contract with Al Nassr. But luxury perks and hefty salaries have not convinced everyone. Earlier this year Kylian Mbappe reportedly refused to meet with Al Hilal officials to discuss his future after his Paris Saint-Germain contract runs out in 2025.
Sport is a foundation stone in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to transform the economy and showcase the kingdom as a significant global actor.
The controversial spending spree by the traditionally conservative Islamic state, which gave women the right to drive in 2018, follows a period of global condemnation after the murder of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
MBS, as he is more commonly known, declared his intention to privatise Saudi Arabian football as one of his first acts when he ascended to a position of power in 2015.
Ever since, there has been growing competition for international sports visibility between Gulf countries, supercharged by Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup.
The kingdom’s recent moves are just the next step in a longer-term investment program in sport, to be driven by a recently launched sports division of the sovereign wealth fund dedicated to acquiring major events.
“If you’re diversifying your economy, you’re supposed to make money from it … and they’re not going to stop,” Chadwick said. “Saudi Arabia is not doing this out of philanthropy, or largesse, or to be ostentatious. They’re doing this to make money.”
Analysts are anticipating possible moves into NBA franchises, tennis and cricket, including a possible investment into the recently launched US major league cricket.
Sustainable sports like Formula E are also foreshadowed as key targets, Chadwick said, because they are in lockstep with the kingdom’s broader investment strategy in priority areas like AI and lithium, a key component of EV batteries.
When MBS launched his ambitious Vision 2030 diversification plan in 2016, he foreshadowed a post-oil future in which Saudi Arabia was a “global player” in investment. The “Saudi addiction to oil” had caused it to neglect other aspects of the economy, he told local media at the time.
Central to Vision 2030 is NEOM, an extravagant mega-project to build a collection of cities in the country’s north-west, including a climate-controlled futuristic city with “no roads, cars or emissions”, a major manufacturing hub and an all-year mountain skiing destination.
While the ballooning investment in sport is largely designed to launch Saudi Arabia onto the international investment stage, the impacts at home are not to be ignored.
Saudi Arabia’s population this year ticked over 32.2 million, of which 63 per cent are under the age of 30, making up a burgeoning youth population that wants the same things their counterparts enjoy around the world.
Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said it was hard to believe that the country’s large youth population, “which could be thought of as an informal political constituency”, has not been a crucial factor in the sports investment equation.
“Unlike other [investment] areas … I see sports as creating more room for regional collaboration and a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’-like situation [that] could also benefit neighbouring countries.”
Riyadh now plays host to some of the region’s largest music festivals, headlined by stars like Bruno Mars, while Saudi youth flock to cinemas, activities that were inconceivable pre-2018. In August, Saudi women donned pink abayas to attend screenings of Barbie, which was banned in other Islamic countries.
“By loosening social restrictions and making Saudi Arabia a global centre for entertainment and sports, MBS is making it less likely that young talented Saudis will leave the Kingdom and, importantly, he is creating a vast reservoir of public support for his rule,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That will go a long way to insulate him from any potential challenges from within the royal family.”
Steffen Hertog, a Gulf expert and associate professor in comparative politics at London School of Economics added that MBS wanted to provide entertainment and sources of national pride for younger generations “to substitute for the old, fiscally unsustainable patronage model where everyone got a government job”.
So, how powerful a tool can sport be for a nation seeking geopolitical influence? Analysts who spoke to this masthead said the potential was mostly overstated, but still relevant at a time when the West was grappling with the rising influence of Iran, Russia and China.
Leveraging internationally renowned figures like Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar as influencers helps, though only on the social level, Hertog said.
“I don’t think [its] perception in the West will change drastically, at least not in the politically more interested public. It could help the Saudi image in the global south, however, where it is typically already substantially more positive than in the West.”
Western motivations to reset relations with Saudi Arabia took centre stage in August when the British government issued an invitation to MBS for an official visit later this year, sparking outcry from advocates.
Reports of the merger between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour earlier this year also triggered criticism in the US, culminating in a Senate inquiry in which Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal accused Saudi Arabia’s government of trying to “buy influence” in US sports.
Steve Bainbridge, head of sports and entertainment (Middle East) for US law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, said the industry was observing a gravitational shift in terms of who hosted major sporting events.
“Across the geopolitical spectrum of potential major event hosts, we’ve already seen countries backing out … [think of] the Commonwealth Games in Australia and Canada,” he said.
Bainbridge, who manages sports and entertainment contracts in the Gulf region, said it was positive that Saudi Arabia could ramp up its hosting of major events, adding that he took issue with the concept of “sports washing”.
“I think it’s a bit of a buzzword that has recently been used almost exclusively to batter the region,” he said.
What some call sports washing, Chadwick calls image and reputation management: “And we all do it, including Australia and Britain and France and others.”
Across the region, experts agree the spending spree is central to a broader strategy to push Saudi Arabia to the forefront of the global economy, international politics and pop culture.
And while there isn’t one cohesive global perception pertaining to Saudi Arabia, sports certainly give those interested in the country something else to focus on, Mogielnicki said.