Sportswashing? Saudi Arabia is spending billions on sports

The Saudi government has been under fire for its broad investment in sports, with critics speculating that it is using sports investments to gain international political influence as well as to mend its tarnished reputation from human rights abuses.

In recent years, but especially during 2023, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been actively investing in sports to promote a healthy lifestyle and enhance the overall well-being of its citizens. It is also a broader effort to diversify its economy away from oil by investing in commercial infrastructure to become a tourism, leisure, and entertainment powerhouse.

This massive investment in sports is also being used to bolster the country’s global reputation, with critics arguing that the ultimate aim of its investment in football, golf, boxing, motor  racing, and many other sports and entertainment ventures is to distract from what they say is its dismal human rights record. 

Some key ways the Saudis have been investing in sports include football, hosting major sporting events, developing sports cities, investing in women’s sports, sports academies and education, and E-sports.

Saudi Arabia has rapidly become a global player in international sports by spending billions of dollars on high-profile deals across the industry in recent years. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made such an ongoing investment a crucial part of his Vision 2030, which aims to make his country less dependent on crude oil and cement its place on the world stage. He is achieving this through the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), an entity he controls, worth over $700 billion. It has a range of investments in areas from electronic vehicles to entertainment. 

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman

Football on top

Football is top-rated in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the Fund has backed and is investing in football clubs, infrastructure, and leagues. Of course, football is of high priority for any nation-state and regime wanting to use sport in its economic and political projects, as the sport has an enormous global outreach and ability to attract millions of viewers week after week.  

Therefore, it was a scoop for the Kingdom to enter into agreements with two of the most popular football leagues in the world to host the Italian Super Cup in 2019, while the Spanish Football Association agreed on a deal to host its Super Cup in Saudi Arabia for three years. Recent reports indicate the contract has been renewed until 2029 with a price tag of 34 million US dollars annually.

In 2021, Saudi Arabia made headlines on sports sites worldwide when its football federation asked FIFA to look at staging biennial World Cups for men and women, a plan that FIFA president Gianni Infantino had been very fond of for some time. However, the idea met strong opposition, notably from UEFA, the International Olympic Committee, and the South American federation CONMEBOL, ultimately leading Infantino to drop the idea for now.

Last summer, Saudi Arabia’s football league dominated the headlines when its clubs spent more than $1 billion in transfer fees and attracted some of the biggest names from Europe’s top leagues. However, according to the Saudi Football League, big-money player purchases are only the first step in a long-term strategy. 

The man at the helm

Carlo Nohra, the Chief Operating Officer at the Saudi Pro League, is tasked with implementing SPL’s transformation strategy designed to elevate the league to become one of the top 10 leagues in the world. He claims it is based on the number of highest-ranking players in the world playing in the league, the monetisation of broadcast rights revenue and viewership, and the maximisation of stadia capacity utilisation. 

Carlo Nohra

Nohra, from Singapore, prides himself on being a globally experienced and innovative sports administration and entertainment executive. He has a track record of resounding success in diverse geographical markets, handling pivotal executive roles overseeing the SPL’s competitions, commercial, marketing, communications and content capabilities. 

Before joining the SPL, he was contracted to Deloitte’s Sport Group to support the formulation of SPL’s transformation strategy. It is easy to communicate with Nohra. He holds a BA in Legal Studies from the University of California and is fluent in English and Arabic, with elementary capability in French and Greek.

Asked about the Saudi’s strategy for the game of football, Nohra said that acquiring players was the first step. He added that, while that helps them grow on the pitch, “the idea is to grow off the pitch and to commercialise as well, so the strategy takes in every element that we need to focus on to get the Saudi Pro League to where it aspires to be among the top 10 leagues in the world,” he said.

The objectives handed down to the Saudi Pro League’s bosses were to improve on-pitch performance through the acquisition of world-class players, firstly, to fill the country’s stadiums, and ultimately to drive the commercialisation of the vastly improved overall product.

Investments under fire

The Kingdom’s investments in sports have included taking stakes in soccer clubs and recruiting top football players like the Golden Ball winner and former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo, whose move to Al Nassr kickstarted the Saudi Pro League transformation. He was followed by another Golden Ball winner and Ronaldo’s former team-mate at Real, Karim Benzema, and Brazilian Neymar from PSG. All three players were lured to Saudi Arabia with deals as high as €160 million. A host of other stars from the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1 followed. 

Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are just the start of Saudi Pro League’s ambitious plans (Photo: Saudi Gazette)

The Saudis have also bought English Premier League club Newcastle United and, since 2021, bankrolled a breakaway golf competition.

The Saudi government has been under fire for its broad investment in sports, with critics speculating that it is using sports investments to gain international political influence around the world, as well as to mend its tarnished reputation from human rights abuses. The practice has been dubbed “sportswashing”.

Replying to such an accusation, the Saudi Crown Prince said on Fox News: “Well, if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, I will continue doing sportswashing. I don’t care. I’m aiming for another one and a half per cent.”

Other sports events

Football has been on top of the list, but beyond that, Saudi Arabia is also involving itself in other sports and has spent tens of millions of dollars hosting several high-profile events, including LIV Golf, with a total of 97 Golf courses as of last December, two heavyweight boxing fights, multiple WWE shows, and a Formula 1 Grand Prix. They want to achieve a lot in a short period.

For example, in 2018, the country hosted the Race of Champions and the Formula E Championship. Such events promote sports, contribute to tourism, and showcase the country on a global stage.

Saudi Arabia is also working on the development of sports cities to provide state-of-the-art facilities for various sports. The Qiddiya project, for example, aims to create a major entertainment and sports city near Riyadh, featuring multiple recreational and sports facilities.

A place for women

For years, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been a topic of concern and controversy internationally. After facing fundamentalist dominance for years, since 2017 Saudi women have experienced major legal rights reforms. However, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, despite these reforms Saudi women still experience discrimination about marriage, family, and divorce, and the Saudi government continues to target and repress women’s rights activists and movements.

This new wave of investment in sports has also reached women, and there has been a particular emphasis on developing women’s sports in Saudi Arabia. The lifting of the ban on women driving in 2018 was accompanied by increased support for women’s participation in sports, and the country has been investing in infrastructure and programmes to encourage women to engage in various sports activities. 

Academies, e-sports, and the 2034 World Cup

The country has recently established sports academies to nurture talent from a young age. These academies focus on developing skills and promoting physical activity among youth. The aim is to create a strong sports culture within the country.

The Kingdom has also shown interest in the growing field of E-sports. It has hosted E-sports tournaments and is investing in further developing E-sports infrastructure to tap into the global popularity of competitive gaming.

Meanwhile, following Australia’s decision to withdraw from bidding to stage the 2034 FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia has been confirmed by the International Football Federation as the only bidder for the event and is, therefore, expected to be named host. The decision will be ratified next year following thorough bidding processes for both FIFA World Cup editions, with the hosts to be appointed by the member associations gathered at the FIFA Congresses. It will be the first time Saudi hosts a competition of this scale. 

Main photo: Newcastle fans celebrate the sale of the club to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (AFP via Getty Images/Oli Scarff)

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