The discussion is currently noticeable everywhere: How Saudi Arabia is bringing sport to the desert state with the help of its billions of Petro dollars.
It started with golf: a new professional league was established to compete with the US professionals. One of golf’s best players was offered $400 million to make the move, and of course he accepted the offer. The Asian Winter Games are also scheduled to take place on the Arabian Peninsula in a few years. Certainly, there is no guarantee of snow, but it can quickly be brought to the hilly area in the west of the kingdom. Motorsport fans will also be delighted with Formula 1 races in Saudi Arabia.
Football is the really big thing! In order to break the “exclusive rule” of Qatar and the Emirates in the European leagues, the Newcastle United club was quickly purchased. But it’s not enough to just be active abroad. Riyadh is now working on presenting the sport in its own country. “We are questioning the status quo,” says the top manager of the Saudi Pro League. It’s about the spectacular transfers with which clubs from the kingdom recently caused a stir; there is talk of a “new channel for players” that has now been opened. These are big names who receive triple-digit million salaries. The Brazilian Neymar recently signed with the Al-Hilal club in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Before Neymar, there were other aging kickers who wanted to make real money again, at least in the autumn of their careers: Ronaldo, Benzema, Mané. Even the former captain of Liverpool FC, Jordan Henderson, who was previously never shy about publicly supporting equality and gay rights, is now playing in the Saudi league. Once his move was official, photographs of the England player, always printed in black and white, were published in the Kingdom’s media. The reason: His captain’s armband at Liverpool was always the rainbow color. Of course, this shouldn’t be noticed by the new employer. At least he understands the excitement in his homeland: “The fact that people criticized me and said I had turned my back on them really hurt me a lot. But I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger.” Players like Henderson are accused of helping crown prince Bin Salman to cover up crimes such as the brutal murder of his critic Jammal Khashoggi and of becoming accomplices in “sportswashing”.
In Europe, the Saudis’ purchasing policy is viewed critically; the players are simply showered with money and cannot say “no”. But isn’t it the case that management in Saudi Arabia isn’t simply copying the system invented in Europe? They find it difficult to accept the fact that Saudi petrodollars are used to steal away stars from the European industry leaders. This is due to the devastating human rights record of the kingdom, which is ruled with a harsh hand by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. The fact that the Saudi clubs do not have to moderate their salary offers due to spending regulations is causing increasing unease, coupled with criticism that is not always objective. Headlines declaring Neymar a “Sheikh’s toy”. There is another reason for the unrest in Europe. There is a plan behind the huge amounts of money that Saudi Arabia is pumping into the domestic league. A bold plan that doesn’t have to succeed, but a well thought-out one: to sustainably improve the kingdom’s reputation abroad and to build a sense of belonging to the nation at home.
Of course, despite all the new stars, the Saudi teams cannot be compared with the European competition. But challenging them on the field is not the first goal either. First of all, they want to build a league outside of Europe. They also want to conquer markets in Africa and Asia, which are currently looking even more closely at the European leagues, but where there may be a greater and emotional closeness to Saudi Arabia. But young people in Europe also want to continue to see their idols Ronaldo and Neymar; they follow them on Instagram or TikTok. And there they see their stars in a country they don’t know. “But if he’s there, it can’t be that bad!”
The money from the $800 billion Saudi sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF), which controls the league, is not only used to buy big names who are making their careers fall in Saudi Arabia. There are players coming who prefer to play some of their good football years in the Saudi league and not in the best in the world, the English Premier League. Saudi football is also hitting the coaching market. Roberto Mancini and Steven Gerrard, who wore the Liverpool FC jersey as a player for more than 17 seasons, are already under contract. In addition, the Saudis also repeatedly lure celebrities from the football scene to the desert for PR coups: Oliver Kahn also used the time after his departure as CEO of FC Bayern Munich for a trip to Saudi Arabia. “It will be interesting to see how the Saudi Pro League develops in the future,” wrote the former German national goalkeeper on X(formerly Twitter) together with a photo of him with Mané and Ronaldo, both at Al-Nassr are under contract. Kahn reported that he was able to watch a club training session and inspect the facility more closely: “I also had time to meet with Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mané.”
The Saudi commitment is not only intended to bring international football to the desert, it is also intended to achieve other goals. It opens up society with a crowbar and pushes back the influence of the ultra-conservative religious scholars. It wants a dynamic society and wants forty percent of the population to do sports by 2030. 60 percent of the population there is under 30, the diabetes rate there is 20 percent, and 56 percent of Saudi youth are overweight. And the rulers in Riyadh have also recognized the social power of sport: the golden times are over in Saudi Arabia, unemployment is over 20 percent. It is no longer enough to praise a fundamentalist religion as a link to a society! Society is changing, new measures are needed that satisfy people on the one hand, but without endangering the power of the ruling family.
“Creating identity” is therefore the new motto. The Saudi social contract is based on a bargain: the ruling family demands obedience, but must ensure that the population can lead a comfortable life. There are many ordinary people in the kingdom who are already complaining about declining subsidies, previously unknown taxes or a tense housing market. There is therefore also a risk that this strategy will “go backwards”. The large domestic market is an advantage for the kingdom, which is carving out a niche with investments in its own league. Other ruling families of rich Gulf states have also launched reform programs and are investing in the football industry – albeit in the established European leagues. In the Saudi league, the new gap between rich and poor has already provoked cautious criticism. There are other influential men there who have invested in clubs that may now be left behind by the PIF-funded football clubs.
The Saudi football offensive reflects increased self-confidence in politics. There, Saudi Arabia wants to be taken seriously as an actor independent of the West in a multipolar world. The balance of power in world football could also shift if the Saudi league is a success. The scandal-driven President of the World Football Association, Gianni Infantino, who has good contacts in the Gulf, will be happy about this, but it will be more damaging to morals in the football business. In Saudi Arabia, undesirable business developments are being taken to the extreme with the new mega salaries. But the kingdom did not invent the rules of this game or the commercialization of football.
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