Messi's PR storm
The footballer has been suspended by the Qatar-owned PSG after taking an "unauthorized trip" to Saudi Arabia to promote tourism.
On May 1st, 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb posted a series of pictures on Twitter of Lionel Messi feeding an Arabian gazelle with his two sons and soaking up the Saudi sunshine.
“I am happy to welcome #Messi and his family to Saudi to enjoy the magical tourist destinations and authentic experiences,” Al-Khateeb wrote in the caption accompanying the photos. “We welcome visitors from all around the world to experience a unique trip to Saudi Arabia and its hospitality.”
Al-Khateeb’s tweet came just one day after the World Cup-winning footballer took to social media to promote the kingdom’s date palm groves and other natural attractions: “Who thought Saudi has so much green? I love to explore its unexpected wonders whenever I can,” read the caption on the post, which was marked as a “paid partnership” with Visit Saudi, a subsidiary of the Saudi Tourism Authority.
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Messi’s visit marked the Paris Saint-Germain player’s latest trip to Saudi Arabia as the kingdom’s tourism ambassador. He previously visited Saudi in May 2022, where he posted an image of himself relaxing on a yacht while watching the sunset.
“Discovering the Red Sea,” he wrote at the time.
Saudi Arabia’s partnership with Messi was the latest in a wave of high profile investments aimed to transform the controversial kingdom into a tantalizing hub for global sports and entertainment events. Saudi now hosts a yearly Formula 1 race, biannual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) shows, the world’s richest horse race, as well as a professional golf league to rival the PGA tour. The country’s sovereign wealth fund (PIF) also financed the purchase of Newcastle United, a soccer team in the English Premier League.
These investments are purportedly part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s heavy dependence on oil by developing the country’s tertiary sector. Its partnership with Messi is part of that overall plan.
By accepting a role as Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador, Messi has effectively aligned himself with a regime linked to countless human rights abuses, including the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its crackdown on intellectuals, LGBTI+ people, reformers, and women’s rights activists. And given that Messi is one of the most popular athletes on the planet with hundreds of millions of fans across social media, his continued willingness to promote Saudi Arabia is a significant boon for the kingdom.
According to sources aware of the partnership between Messi and Saudi Arabia, the Argentinian footballer is also planning to film some more public relations campaigns for the kingdom as part of his ongoing multi-million dollar agreement.
However, Messi’s recent visit may have come at a price. According to French outlet L'Equipe, the 35-year-old forward was suspended for two weeks by PSG for taking an “unauthorized trip” to Saudi. Messi will not be permitted to enter the club’s facilities during the two-week period and will likely miss several Ligue 1 games. The club, which is owned by the Emir of Qatar, reportedly wanted to make an example of Messi after he appeared to prioritize his PR commitments over his work.
Messi’s future with PSG was already uncertain. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is expected to become a free agent when his contract expires this summer and there have been whispers that he may join the Saudi Pro League, where his longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo is currently playing for Al-Nassr FC.
And while Messi’s ongoing suspension is being framed as insubordination, it also marks an interesting development in the current relations between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Qatar.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia along with allies Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on claims that the latter was embracing sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region. Following a four-year-long diplomatic crisis, tensions thawed in January 2021, when Qatar and Saudi agreed to restore relations. Egypt followed suit shortly thereafter while the United Arab Emirates restored ties in 2023.
Nevertheless, while the diplomatic crisis may have come to an end, Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain regional rivals vying for power and influence on the global stage. Qatar owns Al Jazeera, one of the most watched news stations in the Arab world, which it utilizes for soft power and to shape the discourse in the region. It also owns beIN sports, a multi-national network of sports channels that remains the dominant sports platform in the Middle East and North Africa, and hosted the 2022 World Cup in an attempt to expand its influence in sports and enhance its prestige on the world stage.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has spent the past six years investing in sports and entertainment as part of a multi-pronged approach to soft power that includes reducing Saudi’s economic dependence on oil and drawing attention away from ongoing human rights abuses committed by the kingdom with impunity.
Saudi has also set its sights on a portion of Qatar’s sports empire. During the blockade, Saudi attempted to establish a full-fledged broadcasting alternative to beIN Sports with a product that was pirated from the Qatari network. And while Saudi has since dismantled the service as part of its truce with Qatar, the rivalry between the two entities remains.
During the course of the 2022 World Cup, beIN’s streaming service TOD stopped working in Saudi Arabia. Local fans who attempted to stream the games were met with an error message that read: “Sorry, the requested page is violating the regulations of the ministry of media.”
Given the ongoing rivalry between the two Gulf states, it comes as no surprise that the Qatari-owned PSG would take action against Messi, particularly since the footballer was in Saudi Arabia to promote tourism.
Yet Messi’s decision to snub his Qatar-owned club to fulfill his deal with Saudi Arabia does signal a shift in regional supremacy, at least when it comes to football. As Saudi continues to expand its influence in the world of sports and entertainment, its ongoing partnership with Messi – one of the most recognizable athletes in the world – is arguably among its most pivotal achievements.