In a quest to establish itself as the leading entertainment and sporting destination in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has been engaging in fierce competition with its neighbouring nations.
Following Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr, a Saudi Arabian club, six months ago, reports now suggest that the kingdom is actively attempting to entice other football heavyweights like Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema.
According to Simon Chadwick, a renowned professor specialising in sport and geopolitical economy, this strategic move is aimed at diversifying Saudi Arabia’s revenue sources.
Additionally, he highlights the political and socio-cultural motives behind this pursuit.
”They want to project soft power. They want to use football as a means through which to engage in diplomacy with countries around the world. But I also think there’s something sociocultural about this, too. 70% of the Saudi Arabian population is aged under 35. They want to spend their time doing interesting, exciting things. And so this is the Saudi Arabian government attempting to meet the needs of this millennial and Generation Z community,” said Chadwick.
This endeavour is just one among a series of high-profile sports-related developments in the region.
Saudi Arabia hosted the world heavyweight boxing championship bout between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in 2019, launched the prestigious LIV Golf championship, and made headlines with the acquisition of English Premier League club Newcastle United in 2021, orchestrated by a three-party consortium.
However, these projects have been met with criticism from human rights organizations, who draw attention to the country’s harsh treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and migrant workers.
While critics have accused the kingdom of “sportswashing,” visiting associate professor Danyel Reiche advises caution in using this term.
”Of course, Saudi invests into sports to have a better image and to distract from human rights violations. But I think we can not just explain Saudis’ sports investments with this term (sportswashing). It gives the impression that for complex processes, there’s a simple explanation. And I think there’s more than that. And it also reflects social changes in Saudi Arabia,” said Reiche.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering a joint bid with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup.
This proposal is viewed as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to establish its supremacy in the wake of neighbouring Qatar’s hosting of the tournament last year.
The decision on who hosts the 2030 tournament comes down to a public vote of the entire FIFA Congress and is set to take place in September next year.