For a nation seeking worldwide attention to change a traditional picture it displayed, sports is an inestimable field. Billions of fans follow Cristiano Ronaldo in Football, Anthony Joshua in Boxing, and Formula One in racing. Whether through direct involvement in Saudi Sports events or through boosting its tourism and economic projects, the renowned figures with millions of followers on social media are invaluable means through which the speed and glory of projects could be accelerated.
Phase 1: Boxing and Golf
It all started with Boxing where Saudi Arabia hosted luxurious events like the fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr back in 2019. The fight was an entry into a new era of billion-dollar investment in Saudi Arabia on Sports events and figures. Few weeks ago, days into the deadly war in Gaza, a fight between Fury and Ngannou in Saudi Arabia saw CR7 as a special audience which turned it into worldwide number 1 trend across social media for long hours.
The Saudi quest for using sports to represent a modern nation extended to golf and Football. The flashy LIV golf tournament in the country was created by a $2bn investment sidelining all other rivals like India by a safe margin. The golf is not a drawing card across the world but has two main features, turning it into an appealing field for Saudi decision-makers. First, it is a luxurious sports followed by most tycoons and business makers, like Donald Trump, around the world. Evidently, the group is one of the main targets of the Saudi ambitions. Second, golf provides Riyadh with an opportunity to represent its discipline and boast achievements in holding flashy and extensive events.
Phase 2: Football
With LIV golf, Saudi Arabia had already gained the self-esteem to lay its hand on Football, a lucrative game with much more fans and attention. Riyadh started the project by buying famous clubs like Newcastle in Premier League for $391 million late in 2021. Buying clubs, however, made little to realize Saudi goals as it drew little attention to the Kingdom while imposing massive expenses. The kingdom, albeit, made its attempts to exert influence on details like the away kit of the club, which resembled the Saudi national team kit.
With Cristiano Ronaldo accepting to join al-Nassr in the last days of 2022, a major page was turned in the Saudi ambitious sports plans. Ronaldo’s deal was worth over 200m euros per year, totaling 500m euros at the end of the 2.5-year agreement. It was the outset of a rush of players, coaches and agents to Saudi Arabia the next summer. French Karim Benzema from Real Madrid, and Brazilian Neymar from Paris-saint German were other notable transfers to Saudi Arabian Pro League in 2023.
Lionel Messi rejected billion-dollar suggestion from Al-Hilal, deciding to continue his career in MLS in the United States. Nevertheless, the Argentinian superstar had involvement in promoting the Saudi tourism project in a deal that was estimated over $25m.
Phase 3: World Cup
Having already attracted the famous players from across the world, Saudi Arabia seemed a potent country to host the World Cup games in the future. Following a FIFA announcement for Asian countries to bid for 2034 games, Saudi Arabia rushed to submit its proposal, cementing its billion-dollar project with a final touch. Australia’s withdrawal, as the only rival, turned the kingdom into the sole bidder for hosting the World Cup 2034 games.
While the country should wait another year for the final confirmation, the result is already clear. In an event in Riyadh, Bin Salman hosted Gianni Infantino, FIFA president and Cristiano Ronaldo to present the Saudi plan to build “Esports World Cup”. The country is expected to build 14 stadiums for the 48-team tournament in a 10-year span.
As of earlier months of 2023, the “Public Investment Fund” in Saudi Arabia has expended over $6 billion in Saudi Sports projects. The kingdom has hosted grand events in Cricket, Racing, and e-sports while sponsoring the McLaren Group Ltd in Formula One races costed over $550m for the country. The list can get much longer if one goes into details about sponsorships, advertisements, and other fields like motorsports, wrestling, and horse racing.
Sportswashing or Sportsmarketing?
With Saudi Arabia turning into the sole bidder for World Cup 2034, critics and Human Rights activists rushed to lambast FIFA for a fresh imminent humanitarian catastrophe. Keeping Qatar in mind, critics believe that Saudi Arabia’s grand plan for the World Cup may victimize millions of migrant workers living in Saudi Arabia throughout its construction projects. Saudi Arabia has no Labor Union and public protests are forbidden across the country.
During the 10-year process of stadium construction in Qatar, over 15000 workers lost their lives. Human Rights Watch names ‘extreme heat and humidity’ and tough working hours and conditions as the main reasons behind the fatalities. Few miles away from Qatar, Saudi climate is no much different, while the project is way bigger with more stadiums and infrastructure to be constructed. Qatar hosted the most lucrative and expensive World Cup, costing over $220 billion, with the closest rival, Brazil, spending $15 billion in 2014. Qatar World Cup is also famous for being the bloodiest tournament in the history of the games.
Concerns also grew over the humanitarian conduct of Saudi Arabia. Critics allege that the Kingdom means to sportswash its human rights and societal crackdowns. Additionally, the repression of independent media and activists, while FIFA explicitly urges the host to “engage with human rights stakeholders” in its “human rights rules”, may prove big challenges en route. The country has put, and is putting, activists and freelancers to prison for posting on X, criticizing the government, and calling for reform on laws suppressing the rights of women.
Selecting Qatar and Russia, and an imminent introduction of Saudi Arabia, as the host of World Cup games in less than two decades is reminiscent of a FIFA strategy in boosting cooperation with autocratic countries. As Jérôme Valcke explicated the strategy in 2013, “I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup.” Then-FIFA secretary general provided Putin as an example who could move forward with FIFA plans regardless of the potential public and media backlashes towards some policies. As such, the criticisms might be redirected from Saudi Arabia to FIFA whose grand strategies crowns the autocrats with more diamonds on the head.