Saudi Arabia's Ambitious Plan in Sports
Saudi Arabia is pushing with power and success into the international sports scene. This aggressive move to acquire football stars and golf tournaments is rooted in hard political motives but has uncertain returns.
Football Stars and International Sporting Events
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are already there, with Lionel Messi recently passing on a transfer to the Saudi Arabian League to make his fortune in the US instead. However, Messi has already been a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia and remains another prominent figurehead for the Arab State. The list of Saudi million-dollar investments in sports stars and events is long, including international events like the Italian Football Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup, WWE Wrestling League, Rapid Chess World Championship 2017, Dakar Rally, Handball Club World Cup, Formula One races, a Tennis tournament, and FIFA Club World Cup 2023.
Additionally, in 2021, Saudi Arabia took over the Premier League club Newcastle United for $373 million, and in 2029 the Saudis will host the Asian Winter Games - in a cold, barren mountainous region with few buildings currently standing.
Soft Power and Sportswashing
The motives behind Saudi Arabia's sports investments often boil down to two terms: "Soft Power" and "Sportswashing." "Soft Power" refers to the plan to achieve influence, relationships, and therefore power through these investments. Meanwhile, "hard power" relies on economic and military strength, which was the state's primary strategy for many years.
"The massive investments in football and sport help Saudi Arabia to gain soft power and to position the Kingdom as the dominant player in the region," writes journalist and Middle East expert James M. Dorsey in his blog "The Turbulent World." "This is partly achieved by shifting the focus of sports from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates."
Inspiration from Qatar and UAE
The Emirates brought Arab sports investments to the forefront with the purchase of Manchester City in 2008, and Qatar topped the charts with the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia, larger and more populous than its neighbors but a late-comer to the sports investment game, wants to surpass them both.
Sportswashing and Human Rights Abuses
"Sportswashing" refers to the strategy of using international events and prominent athletes to distract from human rights violations. "Articles in tabloid newspapers about Ronaldo's luxury lifestyle, unmarried cohabitation with his girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez, and Rodriguez's bikini Instagram photos help Saudi Arabia present itself as a more socially liberal society, no longer bound by strict Islamic norms," says Dorsey.
Conservative Islam and Sharia Law
However, Saudi Arabia's religious image remains fundamentalist and conservative, with Muslim Sharia law enshrined in the constitution. The lifestyle is correspondingly restrictive. While women can now drive and go out in public without the full veil, according to the "Global Gender Gap Report," Saudi Arabia remains listed at a dismal rank of 127 out of 146 countries.
Investments are also driven by internal political goals, says Tilman Engel, a long-time sports advisor in Qatar. While the opposition is consistently suppressed, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is aware of "the dissatisfaction of young people with the backward and conservative nature of the country and the lack of entertainment, leisure, and social opportunities," Engel tells the "Welt" newspaper. "The Crown Prince wants to win the people over as part of a large social contract that encompasses more than just 'you are fully supplied.'"