Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia’s Sports Extravaganza: A Lavish Gamble with Uncertain Returns

Some sports experts claim that Saudi Arabia and other MENA countries are investing in large-scale sporting endeavors to establish global legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia's Sports Extravaganza
Nassr’s Portuguese forward #07 Cristiano Ronaldo (C) shoots the ball during the Saudi Pro League football match. Fayez NURELDINE / AFP

Dana Hourany

Saudi Arabia has headlined the news in regards to regional football in the last few years; attaining World Cup appearances as well as various Asian titles. However, now the country is determined to become a renowned contender on the world stage, and it appears they plan on doing so much sooner than later.

Capping months of speculation, the 2034 men’s football World Cup host nation, Saudi Arabia, was officially announced via the Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s Instagram account, in the first week of November.

Prior to this decision, the kingdom had recruited some of global football’s top talent for its own domestic league, Saudi Pro League (SPL). To bring these stars to Saudi Arabia, a staggering sum of money was spent.

In December, Al-Nassr made waves around the world with the news that Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo had signed for them. From Miami to Mumbai and Melbourne, the Riyadh team was thrust into the spotlight.

This resulted in many of the world’s best soccer stars moving to Saudi Arabia to join teams in the country’s football league. Notable names such as Neymar from Brazil, Karim Benzema of France and Senegalese Sadio Mane were amongst those who have signed lucrative contracts totaling an estimated $1 billion (€926 million).

In an effort to develop sports investment, bolster professional practices, and upgrade infrastructure, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquired a majority stake in four of its top football clubs: Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ahli. These teams now represent more than 75 percent of PIF’s ownership.

Saudi Arabia set a target revenue of $480 million for their leagues by 2030 as part of its 2030 vision. Currently, revenues are $120 million, so a drastic increase is needed, which means all parties involved must embark on a long but necessary journey. Experts believe that this mission can be achieved if enough effort is put into improving the sports sector’s infrastructure and sports education.

Massive Spendings

This past summer, the Saudi Pro League made a splash in the transfer market, shelling out an impressive $900m to purchase players from abroad. This exuberant spending placed them in second place when compared to the English Premier League, who held their spot at number one. Additionally, astronomical salaries were given to attract talent primarily from Europe’s best leagues.

Carlo Nohra, the Chief Operating Officer of the league, has made it very clear that this is not a short-term investment. The Saudi Arabian Government has promised to provide financial support for the league until it can boast both considerable revenues as well as top quality football.

“While we have the commitment of getting support until however long it takes to achieve our goals, it is important for us to make ourselves commercially viable so that we are responsible for our own financial growth and not completely dependent on government capital,” Nohra told the BBC.

To ensure their new players have the most luxurious lifestyles, Al-Hilal has doled out a considerable amount of money. Neymar, 31, was gifted with not only three luxury cars, according to The Sun, but four Mercedes G Wagons and a Mercedes van for his entourage as well as 24/7 access to a driver. Furthermore, they have provided him with 25 room property that includes an immense 10m by 40m swimming pool and a private jet. Other than Neymar, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Kalidou Koulibaly and Ruben Neves also benefited from Al-Hilal’s lavish expenditures once signed.

Al-Ahli’s re-emergence into the Pro League this season was marked by a flurry of signings, such as Gabri Veiga, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy and Allain Saint-Maximin.

Along with Benzema, Al-Ittihad signed Kante and Fabinho, and Al-Nassr signed Otavio, Sadio Mane, and Aymeric Laporte.

However, Ronaldo and Benzema received the highest salaries of $3.4m and $3.3m a week, respectively.

On the flip side, Al-Ittihad had their offer of 150 million pounds ($187.10 million) for Mohamed Salah rejected by the Liverpool team, while other bids from Al-Hilal to acquire Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe were unsuccessful, Reuters reported.

A Costly Risk

Part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 is to shift its economy away from primarily relying on oil revenue, and instead focusing on sectors including tourism and entertainment. This ambition has manifested itself in an effort to increase its presence in international football as well.

The Saudis have dedicated vast sums to a diverse array of sports, ranging from golf, cricket, cycling, Formula One and tennis to wrestling and mixed martial arts.

According to Saudi officials, their focus on football is a response to economic diversification, public health issues — as more than half of Saudis are overweight or obese — and improving existing sports structures. However, human rights groups allege it’s an attempt at ‘sportswashing‘, diverting attention away from oppressive government policies.

Some sports experts claim that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are investing in large-scale sporting endeavors to establish global legitimacy. In this way, it is hoped that any past misdemeanors can be overlooked by focusing on teams, events, and sponsorships.

Additionally, entertainment and athletic spending can still be used to maintain the ruling family’s dominance. It is believed that these investments will lead to fewer protests or public complaints against the ruling family, observers note.

On a financial level, recouping the funds spent on football may be a difficult task. It is uncertain how teams will convert this investment into increased revenue from global TV rights deals, lucrative sponsorship agreements, or through selling clubs to international investors for large sums of money.

In November of 2022, a report estimated the total debt of Saudi Pro League clubs at $400 million. However, sports expert Mostafa Farhat notes that the Saudi Football journey is still in its infancy and still has a lot of steps to accomplish before reaching the desired results.

An Ambitious Project

Farhat told Fanack that acquiring broadcast deals is essential for Saudi Arabia to generate significant revenue in an effort to increase visibility for the Saudi Pro League. Broadcast giant IMG has set its sights on securing short-term deals in around 30 markets. Reports from Bloomberg state that these agreements would be worth under $10 million annually, with Portugal, China and Italy amongst the countries included in the venture.

The expert adds that it is imperative that the nation produce its own stars, rather than relying on foreign athletes. This implies not only professional training should be provided, but also ensure that all of its infrastructures are current with recent developments, such as proper coaches and well-equipped stadiums.

“There is already a growing amount of worldwide popularity for the teams, as evidenced on social media,” Farhat said. “We observe that Cristiano Ronaldo’s fans are always interacting and following up on his games and even wearing Al-Nassr’s jerseys.”

According to Farhat, these moves are an ideal way for the royal family to maintain its standing in the country, as football is one of the world’s most popular sports, which attracts a lot of admirers from abroad, thereby boosting the country’s reputation, tourism, and economic development.

“Famous sports journalists are already covering the games, while fans see the extravagant lifestyles of the famous players in Saudi Arabia, which will naturally draw their interest to the country,” he added.

For 20-year-old Tarek* who is a Saudi sports aficionado, he retains high hopes regarding the investment in his country’s sports. He is convinced that not only will it have positive impacts on the economy, but also on the nation itself. Saudis are increasingly more passionate about sports and this has ignited the youth’s enthusiasm in particular.

“In the past we had to make a decision between attending important matches or studying. Nowadays, with new investment and talented players, missing out on any sporting event isn’t an option,” Tarek told Fanack.

Female Power

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in growing its women’s football team. On 15 September, the premiere of ‘Destined to Film’ was launched by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), a FIFA+ documentary that follows the journey of the nation’s female football team. Furthermore, the state has established a Schools League that includes 48,000 female participants from 3,600 schools in their efforts to bolster women’s participation in football throughout the country.

SAFF also registered an increase of 86 percent in female players in 2023.

Tarek points out that there is a significant lack of coverage given to women’s football, thus hindering its popularity.

Farhat, on the other hand, notes that female football players are largely met with ridicule rather than respect when compared to their male counterparts. This has had a profound effect on how they are perceived and treated.

“This phenomenon is not limited to Saudi Arabia alone, but is a global issue that has recently begun to shift,” Farhat said.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Saudi Arabia has made a concerted effort to transform itself into a leading athletic power in the world. It remains uncertain whether these efforts will prove fruitful in achieving its 2030 goal, but one thing is certain – international perception is already beginning to change.

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