I’ll never forget the moment Saudi Arabia arrived in global soccer. It happened at the World Cup last November, when the team faced Argentina—the overwhelming favorite to win.
At halftime they were losing 1–0 and nobody was paying attention. I was finishing my halftime snack in the Pearl Lounge at Doha’s Lusail Stadium: a bowl of caviar in one hand and a glass of Taittinger champagne in the other. Then, suddenly, the Saudis scored a goal in the second half—and plutocrats clad in keffiyehs and thobes tipped over their plates of wagyu steak as they stampeded back to their seats. Saudi Arabia went on to beat the soccer legends 2–1, causing the biggest upset in World Cup history.
That game was just the beginning. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an extraordinary and record-breaking shopping spree, spending billions to acquire marquee-name players. The most recent foray is an attempt by Saudi soccer club Al-Hilal to sign French striker Kylian Mbappé, by most measures the best player in the world, for a quite staggering world record $332 million, plus a one-year contract worth $776 million. Money like this has never been seen in soccer before. Unsurprisingly, the bid was accepted by Mbappé’s club, Paris Saint-Germain, but the soccer star, so far, has refused the deal.
Either Saudi Arabia really wants to be the global epicenter of soccer, or they really want to distract the world with their attempts to do so.
Most Westerners believe it’s the latter, accusing the kingdom of “sportswashing.” Saudi Arabia is well aware of their reputation: they’re a country that oppresses women, executes dissidents, and disembowels Washington Post columnists. But—and this is a big but—if they buy enough soccer stars and sponsor enough sports tournaments, then maybe “human rights atrocities” won’t be the first thing mentioned when people discuss Saudi Arabia.
At least that’s the theory. But is it working? Can you buy enough star athletes to make the world forget (or at least ignore) all of your tyrannical excesses? And is that even what they’re doing at all?
What’s crystal clear is that the Saudis have been building up to this investment spree for some time, dipping into their Public Investment Fund (PIF) of more than $700 billion to pay for it. In 2019, the country hosted British heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua’s fight against the Mexican American fighter Andy Ruiz Jr. Then in 2021, it hosted its first Formula 1 race, at the newly minted track in Jeddah. That same year, it made its biggest move so far by buying Newcastle United, a storied Premier League soccer team from the northeast of England.
Then, over the past few months, the kingdom has started taking over soccer (or football, as the rest of the world calls it). It began with Cristiano Ronaldo, the most famous footballer in the world, who in December was lured to play for Saudi club Al-Nassr for a reported $215 million annual salary. Next came Karim Benzema, the top French striker, who left Real Madrid and signed a three-year contract with Al-Ittihad worth an estimated $643 million. And now England legend Steven Gerrard, who signed a deal this month to manage Al-Ettifaq next season for a reported $10 million a year.
It’s not limited to soccer. In 2021, the Saudis launched LIV Golf, a breakaway golf tour funded by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Although the PGA, which ran the game for decades, tried to ban players from competing in LIV, several were attracted by enormous sums, including $200 million for Phil Mickelson and $700 million for Tiger Woods (which he reportedly turned down). The resistance ended in June when the PGA and LIV Golf announced they were pooling their commercial rights, with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the chairman of the Public Investment Fund, also chairing the new entity.
“The Saudis want to spend money. . . and they’re not going to stop,” noted Northern Irish golfing legend Rory McIlroy, who initially turned down a huge LIV offer before bowing to the inevitable. “At the end of the day, money talks.”
Next up, tennis. The Saudi Public Investment Fund has been in talks with top tennis officials about events, infrastructure, and technology. If history is any judge, it’s only a matter of time before they’re hosting Wimbledon in the Wadi.
Framing all this as sportswashing assumes we’ll be so distracted by these glossy, exciting achievements that we’ll forget when the regime executed 81 people in a single day, some of whom were accused of holding “deviant beliefs.” It assumes that we’ll look at pictures of Ronaldo’s rippled torso glistening in the Saudi desert sun instead of discussing how the regime put human rights activist Salma al-Shehab in prison for 34 years simply for following or retweeting political dissidents.
Five years ago, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the powerful Saudi crown prince, was most closely associated with the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi newspaper columnist critical of the regime. Six months after his murder, Saudi Arabia began the process of buying Newcastle United, the premier English soccer club. And MBS’s name started cropping up in the sports pages.
It’s a strategy that isn’t restricted to sports: “chef-washing” is the latest reputation laundering controversy to hit the British press, with mega-chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Jason Atherton criticized for opening restaurants in Saudi Arabia.
Does this strategy work? Consider Qatar. When the country was selected to host last year’s World Cup, it put the Sharia state in the spotlight for its treatment of women and gay people. Millions became aware of its ultra-conservative patriarchy and shocking treatment of migrant workers—millions who otherwise might not have been able to locate Qatar on a map. It’s easy to make the argument that if changing the narrative was Qatar’s goal, it didn’t succeed.
But whether sportswashing works isn’t the real issue. Dismissing Saudi Arabia’s forays into soccer and other sports as a smoke and mirrors tactic doesn’t take into account that their athletic ambitions might be. . . well, genuine.
It also suggests that they are terribly worried about what we in the West think about their culture and governments. It assumes they don’t view us as pompous and racist hypocrites, happy to boss them around as colonial underlings for centuries, willing to invade Iraq on a misguided whim, only to turn around and condemn them for not being pro-LGBT folx and feminists. (This is exactly how they view us, by the way.)
So why else would Saudis buy up sports if not reputation laundering? It might be an attempt to make hay while the sun shines.
When oil was first struck in Dammam in 1936, Saudi Arabia found itself sitting on top of the biggest lottery ticket in history. Fossil fuels have made this previously impoverished desert kingdom stratospherically rich. There’s plenty left in the pump: Saudi Arabia still has almost 300 billion barrels of oil in its reserve and has no intention of slowing down, but MBS and company are keenly aware that with much of the world seeking to move toward greener energy, the party won’t last forever.
Underpinning their every move is an anxiety that the time to invest in a broader future is now, while the oil billions are rolling in. This means sports, and it also means tourism and development—with Saudi Arabia upgrading its fusty airlines, pouring money into developing its Red Sea coastline, planning a super-city of the future at Neom, and attempting to create the “new Petra” at the ancient oasis city of Al Ula.
Sports are helping put Saudi Arabia on the map for tourists, and they can also act as a draw—13 new golf courses are currently under construction in the country, including one overseen by none other than Jack Nicklaus.
Another reason the traditionally conservative Saudis are in such a hurry is they are lagging behind Gulf rivals like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The UAE, and especially its most populous city, Dubai, has long been an international hub for sports, tourism, and finance. And now that Qatar has hosted the World Cup, Saudi Arabia wants to do the same; currently they are attempting to put together a joint bid with Egypt and Greece.
“Saudi Arabia was caught napping,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema, one of the world’s top business schools, based in Lille, France. “Everything with MBS has become target-oriented, because this is also a case of catching up with fierce rivals.”
It isn’t just the West the Saudis are targeting for sporting adventure. They’re also building institutions to promote healthy activity in their own country, where almost 60 percent of the adult population is obese or overweight.
“Obesity and diabetes are a huge problem in the Gulf,” says Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator close to the government in Riyadh. “The youth is football crazy and sport keeps them busy and healthy, ensuring they don’t drift into extremism. This is also why the government approved the teaching of yoga.”
There is a more cynical reason for giving sport and other perks—like pop concerts and allowing women to drive—to the masses: it keeps the people happy while allowing the regime to crack down on dissent. “MBS has tweaked the social contract,” says Chadwick. “You get Cristiano Ronaldo and F1 grand prix and concerts, while also getting repressive political crackdowns. That’s the deal.”
There’s something crass, even grotesque, about the way the authoritarian princelings of the Gulf have flooded global sports. But Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal society run by exceptionally wealthy, unaccountable dudes who are behaving exactly as you’d expect them to. “Saudi still has a very macho-oriented culture,” says Chadwick. “And so you’re seeing money spent on macho priorities: football, fighting, and fast cars.”
And while having fun is important to these men, winning is even more crucial. The Saudis want to be a major global power, not just a regional player. To make that happen, they have recently smoothed over their squabbles with Qatar, formed subtle but important links with Israel, and even agreed to a China-brokered peace deal with Iran (though few expect that one to last long).
Beneath all the cries of sportswashing, one senses a gnawing anxiety in the West over the dynamism and ambition happening in the Gulf. The Saudis are thinking strategically about where they fit into a global future in which America—its longtime patron—faces sharp competition from Asia. Sports are a fast way to get noticed and build soft power, as the Saudis attempt to position themselves as an Afro-Eurasian hub at the center of a new world order.
“Sport is the language we all understand,” says Chadwick. “When Saudi buys a chemical engineering plant, people shrug. But when they buy a Premier League football club, the world pays attention.”
Looking back, that’s also what Saudi fans were celebrating in November. It’s a victory far greater than just one World Cup game. They were celebrating the future: a world that they are building at warp speed, while the rest of us struggle to keep up.
This is Josh Glancy’s first piece for The Free Press. He is the news review editor of The Sunday Times of London, and you can follow him on Twitter @joshglancy.
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