Saudi Arabia is attempting to rebuild its image and prepare for a world without oil — and sport is a key part of its strategy.
Although other nation-states have exerted influence on global sport in the past, we have never seen anything as comprehensive as Saudi Arabia’s vast investments in a multitude of different sports over the past few years.
Saudi Arabia’s smaller neighbour Qatar hosted the 2022 men’s football World Cup and many other competitions, but Saudi has even more cash to splash and limitless ambitions in doing so. This may be a lifeline for some sports, but for critics, this is all an exercise in sportswashing, a distraction from the country’s terrible human rights record.
As reported by The Athletic, the women’s professional tennis tour is preparing to announce that the season-ending WTA Tour Finals will take place in Saudi Arabia, marking the latest step in the country’s huge investment in elite sport.
So which sports are already receiving Saudi money — and which ones might be next?
Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought Newcastle United in 2021 after years of legal wrangling. The club has spent over £400million on transfers since the takeover, a figure that would likely be considerably higher were it not for the Premier League’s increasingly stringent profit and sustainability Rules.
The Saudi Arabian national team has qualified for the past six World Cups, but its domestic league previously had little international profile. That suddenly changed in January 2023 when Al Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo and kicked off a revolution in the Saudi Pro League.
The 2023 summer transfer window began with an overhaul of the league, which saw the PIF taking control of the four founding members: Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Ronaldo’s Al Nassr. Several other clubs received investment from state-run industries.
This change kicked off a vast spending splurge as Saudi clubs signed some of the biggest names in European football including Neymar, Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and N’Golo Kante.
In that summer window, Saudi Pro League clubs spent a record US$957million (£754m), according to Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, resulting in a net spend of $907million. This was second only to the Premier League’s net transfer spend ($1.39 billion).
As well as all this, Saudi Arabia will host the 2034 World Cup, having been announced as the sole bidder. Linked to this, Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil firm, is expected to become the biggest sponsor of FIFA with a $100million-a-year deal, according to a report in The Times last year.
Given the huge infrastructure demands of a tournament expanding from 32 teams to 48, this will require vast amounts of cash.
Saudi Arabia already hosted the 2023 Club World Cup and will prepare further by staging the 2027 Asian Cup. The country has already hosted the Italian and Spanish Super Cups, too, both of which are mini-tournaments featuring four teams.
In October 2021, the same month the PIF bought Newcastle United, the Saudis dropped a bombshell on the world of golf by pledging to invest $2billion in a new competition called LIV Golf.
After an acrimonious period when LIV existed in competition with the PGA Tour, LIV is now on the brink of taking over the global game. In June 2023, LIV, the PGA Tour and the PGA European Tour agreed to merge into a single commercial entity, with PIF the “exclusive investor” with the first right of refusal on new investors.
Eight months on, though, and a deal has not been finalised and the new LIV season begins on Friday (February 2).
Aramco is almost entirely owned by the Saudi government and the PIF. A study cited by Amnesty International said the company is responsible for more than four per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions since 1965.
Aramco became the International Cricket Council’s naming sponsor last year and its logo has been plastered over events run by the organisation, including the recent World Cup in India.
As well as this, Saudi Tourism, a government body, is a main sponsor of the Indian Premier League, which is one of the wealthiest sporting organisations in the world. It has even more revenue than football’s Premier League because of the huge value of India’s domestic broadcasting market.
The Daily Mail has also reported that the PIF is in “advanced talks” for a huge investment to finance a second IPL, which would take place in the autumn, although nothing tangible has been confirmed.
Leaders in the Gulf have long taken a big interest in horse racing, with Dubai and Qatar hosting major events.
The biggest prize pot in the history of the sport is the Saudi Cup at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh — $20million. HRH Prince Bandar bin Khalid al-Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club Saudi Arabia, has said his country wants to “become a leading player on horse racing’s world stage”.
Saudi Arabia is the new home of elite boxing. A ‘Day of Reckoning’ in Riyadh on December 23 involved huge names like Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, while Tyson Fury beat UFC star Francis Ngannou in controversial circumstances in the same city in October. Fury is now scheduled to take on Oleksandr Usyk in a historic unification contest in Saudi Arabia later this month.
The story started back in 2019 when Joshua visited Riyadh for the ‘Clash of the Dunes’, winning his IBF, WBO and WBA heavyweight titles back from Andy Ruiz Jr.
The sport is driven by feuds and rivalries, which often come down to disputes over money — which Saudi’s vast riches can solve.
Boxing’s biggest names have dismissed accusations of sportswashing, with Joshua saying “I don’t know what that is” and Fury saying Saudi Arabia is a “very safe place”. Fury also lavished praise on the government for being more welcoming to him than his native UK.
Saudi Arabia’s move into boxing has been led by Turki Al-Sheikh, chair of the General Entertainment Authority, who has become one of the most influential figures in the sport.
In 2021, Saudi Arabia hosted a Formula 1 race for the first time, giving the World Championship an increasingly Middle Eastern flavour. The circuit in Jeddah has joined Bahrain, Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the World Championship.
The Grand Prix has been repeatedly criticised by human rights campaigners for whom the sport has long been a focus of ire. Sportswashing accusations have also been levelled at other races across the Middle East and also in Azerbaijan and Hungary.
The PIF bought a £400million stake in the McLaren F1 team in 2021 but sold it to Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund two years later.
Saudi Arabia has also invested in other motorsports, such as Formula E racing.
Saudi Arabia is at the heart of a major feud rocking the world of tennis. The Women’s Tennis Association is preparing to announce that its season-ending finals will take place in Riyadh, but tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have said doing so would “represent not progress, but significant regression” for the sport.
“Not only is this a country where women are not seen as equal, it is a country where the current landscape includes a male guardianship law that essentially makes women the property of men,” they said. “A country which criminalises the LGBTQ+ community to the point of possible death sentences. A country whose long-term record on human rights and basic freedoms has been a matter of international concern for decades.”
Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the USA, hit back, saying their views are “based on outdated stereotypes and western-centric views of our culture”.
Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur, one of the most famous Arab sports stars, has said she would be “very excited” if the competition took place in Saudi Arabia.
The country has also hosted exhibition matches, such as a clash between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, ranked No 1 and No 2 in the world, in December.
Although it is hard to call professional wrestling a sport, it has long been at the forefront of the Saudi cash bonanza.
Way back in 2014, before Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was Saudi leader, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) started hosting untelevised events in the country.
More recently, WWE has signed a series of agreements with the country’s authorities, starting in 2018 with the announcement of a 10-year strategic partnership with the Ministry of Sport and was “expanded” a year later after an agreement with the General Entertainment Authority.
WWE now host two major events annually in Saudi Arabia.
This has triggered some interesting cultural conversations, such as an initial ban on women wrestlers being relaxed to the current situation where women compete but wear bodysuits because of Islamic norms.
Mixed martial arts is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports — and another which has had Saudi investment.
SRJ Sports Investments, a subsidiary of the PIF which invests in sports businesses, bought a minority stake in the Professional Fighters League (PFL) last year, reported by the Financial Times as being worth $100million.
The press release marking the deal said the league will soon launch a Middle East and North Africa league and will stage other “mega-events” in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is betting big on the world of eSports. eSports are very popular with a younger demographic, which some analysts think will displace more conventional sports in the global popularity rankings in the coming years.
In October, MBS announced the launch of an eSports World Cup to be held annually in Riyadh, starting in summer 2024.
The event will see the largest-ever prize pots for eSports contestants as Saudi attempts to become the world leader in the field.
Looking solely at sponsors rather than examples of Saudi Arabia taking a more extensive investment role, investigative sports website Play The Game has created an exhaustive list of where state-linked organisations, such as Aramco, Saudi National Bank and Saudi Telecom Company, have sponsored sporting teams and bodies.
Play The Game have counted 323 examples of Saudi state-linked sponsorship over a huge range of sports, many in Saudi Arabia but others spread across the world.
One of the more high-profile examples is Newcastle United’s shirt sponsor Sela, a tourism company owned by the Public Investment Fund which owns the club. Many Saudi Pro League teams have state-linked sponsors.
There are lots of football examples: Lionel Messi has a deal with Visit Saudi. Italian football club Roma’s shirts are sponsored by Riyadh Season, a state-funded sports and entertainment festival. Neom, a futuristic planned city in the Saudi desert, sponsors the AFC Cup, the continent-wide club football competition, effectively Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League.
As well as sponsoring the International Cricket Council, Aramco also sponsors the Chinese Basketball Association, motorsport’s Dakar Rally, and golf’s Asian Development Tour.
Other sports may not yet have fully thrown their lot in with the Saudi cash, but they are certainly thinking about it.
The World Athletics Championship has long had a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airlines. Qatari capital Doha hosted the biennial event in 2019. However, the competition was criticised for its poor attendance, flat atmosphere and suffocating heat.
This makes the topic of Middle Eastern cash a sensitive topic for World Athletics. Its president, Seb Coe, has said the sport is cautiously prepared to welcome cash from Saudi Arabia, but “it won’t be because we’re simply going there to cash the cheque and then move on — we can’t afford to have empty stadiums”.
Rugby is also seen as a potential home for Saudi investment. In October, the Daily Mail reported that the South Africa rugby union team had been approached about investment. However, nothing concrete has happened yet.
Saudi Arabia is rumoured to have long-term ambitions to host the Olympic Games. The Games are proving increasingly unattractive in democratic nations because of the huge costs associated with hosting, in exchange for benefits that can seem removed from the local population’s more pressing concerns.
With no pressure to turn a profit on tickets or win the next set of elections, Saudi’s government may be able to persuade the International Olympic Committee to allow them to host the games — meaning a sensational double alongside the 2034 soccer World Cup.
What about America?
One notable absence from Saudi investment is the big American sports — basketball, American football, baseball. There are various reasons for this.
The existence of (soft and hard) salary caps means it is harder to “buy” success than in sports elsewhere.
Qatar has a five per cent stake in the parent company of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, NHL’s Washington Capitals and WNBA’s Washington Mystics. But a larger stake, or outright ownership, would need rule changes, of which there are no signs.
These sports also need cash less than others that have already accepted Saudi investment.
However, the LIV Golf example demonstrates that the proposition is not just an investment in existing structures. They can also blow those structures out of the water by funding a new competition.
Doing this in basketball or American football would take vastly more cash than golf, but stranger things have happened.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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