Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup delivered a sports legacy for the region’s reputation.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has bet big on four of its top football teams with plans to privatise several sports clubs and attract the world’s best footballers.
The kingdom’s audacious moves to storm into the footballing world reflects its ambitious plans to not only influence but cement its influence on the region and wider world, and was likely inspired by the massive 5 billion viewership and attraction gained by Qatar during the last FIFA World Cup.
Unlike the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, clubs in the kingdom are not tied by UEFA’s rules on spending salaries on footballers and oil-rich Saudi Arabia is not short on cash.
In just the last few months alone, Al-Ahli, Al-Ittihad, and 2021 Asian Champions League winner Al-Hilal have managed to pull in world class talents like Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and 2018 World Cup champion N’Golo Kante – following on from trailblazer Cristiano Ronaldo who shocked the world after signing with Al Nassr earlier this year.
Following in the steps of his former teammate, Benzema also ended a trophy-laden 14 years at Real Madrid by joining forces with Al Ittihad for an estimated €200 million three-year deal.
Earlier this month, Chelsea’s and French sweetheart midfielder Kante announced a €100m-per-season deal at Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad, bringing his seven-year spell at the English club to an end.
Earning a whopping €200m over two years at Al-Ittihad, Kante and Benzema’s transfer to the Saudi league is said to be a game-changer that is likely to inspire other world class talents.
In addition, Wolves’ sell of their captain Ruben Neves to Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal for a club record £47m shocked many due to the footballer being one of the youngest in the latest trades.
The 26-year-old Portugal midfielder had only a year left on his contract and voiced at the end of last season that he was ambitious amid interest from Barcelona, however no acceptable offer materialised.
In addition, Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy closed in on a £16million move to Saudi’s Al-Ahli.
Despite two brilliant seasons after joining the Blues, Mendy’s international success in the Club World Cup and helping Senegal win the Africa Cup of Nations has undoubtedly triggered the attention of the Saudis.
Experts say the increase in financial firepower by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the wealthiest in the world, has a chance to “unleash various commercial opportunities” and enable “further investment and sponsorship”.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s growing investment in its Soft Power assets is a key strategic objective connected to transformative economic, cultural, and social reform and diversification,” Omar Salha, an expert in Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy, told Doha News.
“Underpinned by three main pillars, the kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals is a strategic blueprint towards achieving a ‘vibrant society,’ a ‘thriving economy,’ and an ‘ambitious nation,” Salha added.
Salha references the trade of Benzema as a mechanism to attract awareness to the growing and changing individualism of the kingdom.
“The recruitment of sport celebrities and superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Lionel Messi is a purposeful tool in growing the sport of football in the region, attracting the eyes and ears of the world to the kingdom and developing a nation brand identity, perception, and influence,” Salha told Doha News.
He said Saudi Arabia’s growing interest and activity in sports will continue to yield as it seeks to become a regional and global destination spot for cultural exchange.
However, despite its impressive list of successful signings over the last few months, the lucrative Saudi wealth fund was unable to capture the heart of the ‘greatest of all time’ Lionel Messi.
Following months of speculation on a move to Saudi Arabia, the 2022 World Cup champion confirmed he had turned down a reported $400 million-a-year deal to join Al Hilal, opting instead to transfer into the US’ MLS league.
“If it had been a question of money, I would have gone to [Saudi] Arabia or elsewhere where they offered me a lot of money,” Messi said on his decision to sign with Inter Miami.
Despite Saudi Arabia not landing the former Paris Saint-Germain forward, Simon Chadwick, the Director of Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry and a professor at the Emlyon Business School, considers the kingdom a sizzling topic for the world.
“In a week that will culminate in club football’s biggest match of the season being staged, it is likely that for most of it the world of football will instead be talking about Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, and Saudi Arabia,” Chadwick told Doha News.
“Whether it is through popular discourse, social media chatter, or media coverage, the Gulf once again is set to become the centre of attention again for world football,” Chadwick remarked.
For Chadwick, the mere fact that the latest Saudi recruits have chosen to play in the kingdom is set to open doors for the Gulf region as well as footballers looking for an alternative pitch.
“Some will see Messi, Benzema, and Ronaldo playing in the country’s Pro League as moves that further legitimise football in the Gulf region.”
“But for others, it will confirm the view that Saudi Arabia is the new retirement home of choice for aging footballers and a bubble waiting to burst. Only time will tell which view is correct; meanwhile, Gulf football is once again basking in hot sunshine,” Chadwick added.
Whether the bubble bursts or morphs into a rolling and unstoppable avalanche, it’s clear that Saudi Arabia’s daring venture, backed by its perpetual flow of cash, is turning heads across the sporting world.