HomeWorld NewsSaudi Arabia’s football power grab – Geographical Magazine
Saudi Arabia’s football power grab – Geographical Magazine
August 24, 2023
Sports news now, and in football’s top-of-the-table clash in the Saudi Pro League, the score is Al Hilal 191 – Al Ahli 92. That’s US$191 million and US$92 million, the amounts the clubs spent this summer to attract star players to the league.
Critics say that buying up players such as Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez is part of Saudi Arabian ‘sportswashing’ – bankrolling sport in order to distract from a dismal record on human rights. It is, but it’s also part of a bigger picture.
Acquiring star names, buying Newcastle United, sponsoring sports brands and hosting major events all sits within the Saudi government’s well-thought-out long-term soft-power strategy, which is aimed at creating a non-oil-reliant economy and normalising the country in the eyes of the outside world. Saudi sportwashing needs to be seen in the context of the kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 project.
Vision 2030 intends to make Saudi Arabia one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. Along with tourism, this will sustain revenues as the economy is weaned off fossil fuels. So, although buying into global sports may turn attention away from state-sanctioned brutality against dissidents, that isn’t the prime mover.
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The term’ soft power’ was coined by the American foreign-relations scholar Joseph Nye, who defined it as ‘the ability to affect others to obtain the outcome one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment’. Sport is frequently used, as seen during the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the USA.
Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has seen how the UAE used this model to successfully present itself as a modern, open country, despite a poor human rights record. Dubai is a financial centre and a beachfront playground; Abu Dhabi is a cultural hub that hosts The Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as owning Manchester City. It’s rumoured that the Abu Dhabi royal family thinks of Manchester City as a global advertising platform to promote the emirate as a tourist destination. Earlier this year, Erling Haaland was among a group of City players filmed playing golf for an ad for the ‘Visit Abu Dhabi’ campaign. The club’s stadium is named after the government-owned airline, and advertising boards in the arena promote a variety of state-related brands.
The Saudi effort to emulate this success is bankrolled by its sovereign wealth fund. Given that the Public Investment Fund (PIF) has assets estimated at around US$700 billion, the decision to buy Newcastle for US$391 million two years ago wasn’t a difficult one. The US$6 billion or so spent on sports so far this decade has hardly put a dent in the fund.
As an aside, MBS had fallen out with his former mentor, the UAE president Mohammed bin Zayed, and if he had a club, then so would MBS. The Man City vs Newcastle fixture has taken club rivalry to state level.
The fund has also bought four of Saudi’s top teams. Hence, the spending spree on big-name players seeking a last payday before retiring.
The government knows that if it can grow the Pro League (which already gets good crowds) younger players may come. If standards improve, foreign TV companies may take an interest in covering games, which will, in turn, attract tourism. When Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr last year, Portuguese TV agreed to a short-term deal to broadcast the games in which he appeared.
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Football is only a small part of the sporting side of this soft-power exercise. PIF has invested far more money in Formula One, boxing, wrestling, golf and esports. In other entertainment areas, it has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into companies such as Meta/Facebook and Disney, and is spending billions building entertainment centres in 14 Saudi Arabian cities, including Mecca, Jeddah and Riyadh. A PIF subsidiary has partnered with brands such as Warner Bros, Mattel and Hasbro. The idea is that the centres will cater to the growing young Saudi population, who will enjoy a degree of social (but not political) liberalisation, and it will simultaneously boost tourism and, thus, the economy.
But all the world’s a stage. Football is the world’s game and, as such, attracts the most attention. So Haaland plays golf, Henderson plays football and Saudi Arabia plays hard with soft power.