I’m thrilled to introduce a fresh new format for our newsletter, allowing us to dive deep into topics that truly matter. In this edition, we’re turning our attention to something big: the sports scene in Saudi Arabia.
Right now, Saudi Arabia is buzzing with activity as clubs go through the mercato period, a time when they make strategic moves to strengthen their teams. The recent addition of Cristiano Ronaldo to the Saudi Pro League has sparked even more interest in this wave of changes.
While we briefly touched on this in our last newsletter, I’m excited to use this new format to dig deeper into this intriguing subject.
Back in 2017, a new chapter began in Saudi Arabia with Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, becoming Crown Prince. He brought in the Vision 2030 plan, a roadmap for the country’s future.
So, why is Saudi Arabia suddenly investing so much in sports, especially in bringing in football players? What’s the strategy behind it all?
In this first edition, we’re going to explore the reasons and strategies driving Saudi Arabia’s move into the sports spotlight.
A Tarnished International Reputation
At the start of his leadership, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) adopted an aggressive approach marked by actions with profound global impact. The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 triggered international condemnation, raising concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and press freedom. MBS’s leadership in the Yemen war led to a humanitarian crisis and accusations of violating international law. The Qatar blockade strained regional ties and questioned Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic strategies. These forceful actions diminished Saudi Arabia’s international standing, prompting a shift towards using sports and other avenues to rebuild its global image.
Spearheaded by the leader of the petromonarchy, Mohammed bin Salman, this visionary project reflects his resolute commitment to reestablishing Saudi Arabia as a formidable regional and global force.
Launched in 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 serves as a strategic roadmap for national development, with a central emphasis on diversification and innovation:
- Public Services (Health/Sports): This plan places a paramount focus on elevating public services, encompassing both healthcare and sports. By enhancing these aspects, the goal is to uplift citizens’ well-being and productivity.
- Key Sectors (Sustainability, New Technologies, Tourism): Vision 2030’s core objective is to lessen dependency on oil by investing in key sectors such as sustainability, new technologies, and tourism. This strategy aims to cultivate a more resilient and diverse economy.
- International Partnerships: At its heart, the plan seeks to establish strategic partnerships with global collaborators, fostering innovation and the exchange of expertise.
- Economic Diversification: Saudi Arabia envisions a balanced economy beyond oil by promoting industries like entertainment, culture, and technology.
In essence, Vision 2030 delineates a comprehensive strategy to enhance the quality of life, stimulate economic growth, and foster international engagement, all while diminishing reliance on oil revenues.
Saudi Arabia’s use of sports as a strategic tool for improving its international image and diverting attention from its human rights concerns is commonly referred to as “sportwashing.” Despite trailing behind its regional counterparts, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, in terms of sports development, Saudi Arabia embarked on an ambitious journey in 2018 by investing heavily in hosting major international sporting events. These events, spanning from boxing and football to cycling and Formula 1, have not only showcased Saudi Arabia’s sporting infrastructure but have also garnered substantial media coverage on a global scale.
Of notable significance is football, which initially remained an untapped resource for Saudi Arabia’s sports ambitions. However, the tide shifted in 2021, following the lifting of the Saudi blockade on Qatar. This milestone allowed the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to make a high-profile acquisition: the purchase of Newcastle United Football Club. With the PIF’s substantial assets exceeding $600 billion, the fund supports Saudi Arabia’s broader Vision 2030 initiative, which encompasses diverse sectors, including sports.
Central to this sports-focused strategy is the transformation of Saudi football clubs into corporate entities, a move that places them under the ownership of the PIF. The overarching goal is to exponentially increase the commercial revenues generated by the Saudi Pro League. Aiming to elevate revenues from $120 million in 2022 to an impressive $500 million annually, this initiative not only underscores Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle but also its determination to position itself as a major player in the global sports landscape.
Interestingly, this strategy is reminiscent of analogous approaches adopted by fellow Gulf States. The United Arab Emirates made a significant stride in the global football arena by acquiring Manchester City in 2008, a move that catalyzed the expansion of its influence through the City Football Group. Similarly, Qatar harnessed its sovereign investment fund, QIA, to forge a presence in the world of sports, most notably with the acquisition of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in 2011 through its subsidiary QSI.
The pinnacle of Saudi Arabia’s sports ambitions is exemplified by the high-profile signings of global football icons such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Neymar for a total amount of $700 millions. We could build a starting 11 that many players would love to line up on Football Manager or Fifa:
Alex Telles – Kalidou Koulibaly – Frank Kessié
Neymar – N’Golo Kanté – Seko Fofana – Fabinho
Riyad Mahrez – Karim Benzema – Sadio Mané
These acquisitions, coupled with plans to host upcoming international events like the World Cup, reflect Saudi Arabia’s determination to project an optimistic and progressive image to the world. Furthermore, these endeavors align with Saudi Arabia’s broader strategy, as illustrated by Aramco’s sponsorship of Formula 1 and the support for the LIV Golf Series, a prestigious tournament featuring top-tier golf players.
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia’s approach to utilizing sports as a catalyst for international rebranding and global recognition is multi-faceted and dynamic. By leveraging high-profile acquisitions, hosting major sporting events, and aligning with global sports enterprises, Saudi Arabia is carving its path towards becoming a significant player in the world of sports, while also cultivating a more positive international image. This multifarious strategy, rooted in sports, symbolizes Saudi Arabia’s aspirations to transform and diversify its global identity.
I hope you enjoyed this new format with this interesting topic and I am readily available for any further discussions you may require. Please feel free to schedule a meeting through my Calendly.
Chief Executive Officer | MYJ Group