Saudi Arabia: Will football stars have a political impact? – DW (English)

Last week, German professional footballer Toni Kroos told journalists that Saudi Arabia was ruining the game of soccer.

The former German national player was not alone in this complaint. Sports commentators and fans alike have criticized the fact that Saudi Arabia has recently been enticing some of the world’s most famous football players to its domestic league with extravagant multi-million dollar salaries.

Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazil’s Neymar, French striker Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane of Senegal and a number of others have all taken up contracts with teams in the Saudi football league. It is estimated their various deals might top $1 billion (€926 million) in salaries for around 20 international players.

“In the end, it’s a decision about money — and against football,” Kroos said of the players who had left for Saudi Arabia, during an August interview with the German edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. “And from that point, it starts to get difficult for the football we all know and love.”

Argentinian star Lionel Messi opted not to play in Saudi Arabia but has a multi-million dollar deal as a tourism ambassador for the countryImage: Mike Schmidt/IMAGO

But could football also make life for Saudi Arabia’s autocratic government more difficult? After all, the increased international scrutiny that comes with such high profile players also means more attention on the way Saudi Arabia is ruled as a monarchy, as well as its dire human rights record. Kroos himself said he wouldn’t go to the Saudi league because of the human rights situation there.

Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy

Saudi Arabia’s concerted campaign to play a much bigger role in international football is part of the oil-rich Gulf state’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan. This aims to diversify the country’s economy away from oil income and into sectors like tourism and entertainment.

Through various financial vehicles and sponsorships, the Saudis have also invested huge amounts in everything from golf, cricket, cycling, Formula One, tennis, wrestling and most recently, mixed martial arts.

Saudi investments in golf have been just as, if not more, controversial as those into footballImage: Steve Szurlej/AP/picture alliance

Football wasn’t always on the agenda. As James Dorsey, an expert on football in the Middle East, has noted, the first consultants to work on Saudi Arabia’s national sports strategy were told to focus on individual sports — like tennis or golf — rather than team sports.

“De-emphasizing team sports was intended to limit soccer’s potential as a venue for anti-government protests,” Dorsey, a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the syndicated newsletter, “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer” wrote in an August column.

Soccer as a potential problem

There are plenty of historical examples of how football can be politically troublesome in the region.

In 1958, during the Algerian campaign for independence from colonial power, France, some of the best Algerian players caused controversy by defecting from the French football league to form their own, independent national team.

In 2000, Libyan football fans stormed the pitch in Benghazi after an unfair game against a club owned by the son of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In 2011, hard core football fans in Egypt known as “ultras” played a significant role in the revolution that eventually toppled the country’s long-standing dictator, Hosni Mubarak. And most recently, Qatar changed its own labor laws after international criticism before and during the 2022 football World Cup, which it hosted.

Some of Egypt’s ultra groups are still classified as terror organizations todayImage: Ahmed Khaled/dpa/picture alliance

Despite such examples, the advisory to steer clear of team sports seems to have been ditched after 2018, when Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cemented his hold on power.

The Saudi government now says its focus on football is about economic diversification, locals’ health — over 60% of Saudi nationals are obese or overweight — and developing sporting infrastructure. Human rights activists disagree, arguing it’s about “sportswashing,” the practice of using sports events as a way of distracting from such things as a country’s repressive politics.

The answer most likely lies somewhere in the middle: The Saudi sports strategy is motivated by both internal and external political considerations.

Saudis are football-mad

Around two-thirds of the Saudi population is under 35 and football is the country’s favorite sport. “So I think that he [Mohammed bin Salman] realized you can’t really build a sports sector without football,” Dorsey suggested. “He has to deliver on jobs and economic sustainability and sports is part of that. There are also non-economic factors,” he continued.

“To reduce the risk of challenges … most autocrats rely on a combination of repression, legitimation and co-optation,” the authors of a 2022 paper, International Sports Events and Repression in Autocracies, published in the American Political Science Review, explained.

“So they’re using [football] for both legitimacy and, to some degree, co-optation purposes,” Adam Scharpf, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen, told DW. 

In Syria, former national team player, Abdul Baset al-Sarout, became a militia leader and a hero of that country’s revolution Image: Omar HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Having the world’ best footballers playing in the country’s own league impresses citizens and demonstrates that the country can play as an equal on the world stage, Scharpf said. “Of course, you also have repression. And this is all combined in a strategic way.”

It’s something of a “bread and circuses” situation, both Dorsey and Scharpf agreed, referring to the ancient Roman adage that basically says when citizens are entertained and well fed, they won’t bother with politics.

“Essentially, what the government is now doing is saying: ‘Well, if you want Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, we’ll give them to you.’” Simon Chadwick, a professor at the Skema business school in France, who specializes in the links between sports and politics, told The Athletic, a sports publication, in June. “But the flip side to that is they do not want to be questioned. So far this year, there have been more arrests of people in Saudi Arabia for posting negative comments about the government than ever before. The contract is that you can have whatever you want, but don’t question us.”

Sports makes things worse in autocratic-led regimes

After looking in detail at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Scharpf and other researchers concluded that autocratic regimes are well aware of the double-edged nature of large sporting events and deliberately devise strategies to deal with those. These may include increased violence before and after an event and increased surveillance. 

“So in many ways, the sports event doesn’t make things better for people living in the country, it makes them worse,” Scharpf said.

In fact, despite all of the optimism about sports being a catalyst for positive social change, football is just a tool, Dorsey argued. Whether or not it brings change depends on circumstances and how political leaders choose to use it.

“In 2011, when football fans played a major role in Egypt, there were several pre-existing conditions,” he explained. “You had widespread discontent and the stadium was one of the few places where that discontent could be voiced and where people had a sense of strength and numbers. Are those circumstances theoretically possible in Saudi Arabia? Sure. Is there any indication that’s a realistic scenario anytime soon? Absolutely not.”

Strategic repression: Saudi women were allowed to drive in 2018 but many protesters who originally called for that right remained in jailImage: Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images/picture alliance

Of course, football might still play a positive role at a personal or societal level. However when it comes to nationwide politics, neither Scharpf nor Dorsey think football is about to have any impact in Saudi Arabia. In fact, as Scharpf pointed out, he doesn’t know of any robust scientific studies anywhere that show sport helps bring about political change at the top.

A brief search using Google offers another, albeit pretty unscientific, answer as to whether the Saudi strategy on football is succeeding at an international level.

A date-restricted search turns up around 10 English-language news headlines about Mohammed al-Ghamdi, the retired Saudi teacher recently sentenced to death for posting political opinions on X (formerly known as Twitter). That’s in the week since Human Rights Watch issued a statement on his case.

In that same time frame, there were over 1,000 news headlines featuring the name of British football player, Jordan Henderson, one of the most recent high-profile recruits to the Saudi league.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Saudis accused of sportswashing over English football funds

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