Saudi Arabia Scores Big
Between an all-but-guaranteed World Cup in 2034, a sponsorship deal with AS Roma, and Newcastle's Champions League success, Wednesday turned out to be an unprecedented day in Saudi sports.
Beneath the brilliant floodlights of St. James' Park, Newcastle United enjoyed a fairytale return to the Champions League, humbling French league champions Paris Saint-Germain with a resounding 4-1 victory.
It was Newcastle’s first Champions League game on home soil in 20 years, and their performance—including goals from local heroes Dan Burn and Sean Longstaff—helped create an indelible memory that will resonate with Magpie fans for years to come.
It also proved to be a significant moment for the contentious owners of Newcastle United: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Hours before Newcastle earned its biggest ever winning margin in a Champions League match, Saudi Arabia announced its intentions to bid for the 2034 World Cup.
The Saudi announcement came minutes after FIFA named Morocco, Spain and Portugal as hosts of the 2030 World Cup.
Football’s world governing body then invited countries in the Asia and Oceania regions to submit bids for the subsequent edition, paving the way for Saudi Arabia to bid for the 2034 World Cup.
"Led by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), the bid for 2034 intends to deliver a world-class tournament and will draw inspiration from Saudi Arabia's ongoing social and economic transformation and the country's deep-rooted passion for football," Saudi FA said in a statement.
"Saudi Arabia’s inaugural FIFA World Cup bid is backed by the country’s growing experience of hosting world-class football events and its ongoing plans to welcome fans across the world to the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup and 2027 AFC Asian Cup."
After FIFA confirmed the news that the 2034 World Cup would be held in the Asia or Oceania region, Asian Football Confederation president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa—a member of Bahrain’s royal family which has long been allied with the Saudi monarchy—appeared to support the bid.
"We strongly believe it paves the way for a more equitable opportunity for all confederations to bid for, and host, the prestigious FIFA World Cup - the pinnacle of world men’s football," he said.
Initially, Saudi Arabia had plans to bid for the 2030 World Cup, even making efforts to enlist Egypt and Greece as potential partners. However, it became evident that FIFA was hesitant to endorse another Middle Eastern or Arab bid, given Qatar's hosting of the 2022 edition just eight years prior. Subsequently, Egypt's abrupt withdrawal raised concerns about the potential role of geopolitical tensions in this decision.
Saudi would have preferred a 2030 World Cup because it would have coincided with the kingdom’s “Vision 2030” masterplan, which outlines the kingdom’s goals of creating a “vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation” through social reforms and economic diversification in sectors such as tourism, sports, entertainment, and technology. Hosting the world's most renowned sports event would have offered an ideal opportunity to effectively showcase the plan's achievements and successes.
Nevertheless, a 2034 World Cup is now all-but-guaranteed for Saudi Arabia. While Australia is currently exploring a bid to challenge the kingdom’s offer, the federal government will have less than a month to make a submission.
Saudi Arabia’s announcements did not end there. AS Roma—one of Italy’s most popular football clubs—revealed Wednesday that Riyadh Season, the state-sponsored annual sports and entertainment festival, will be the club’s new shirt sponsor.
Reports from Italian media suggest that the deal is worth more than $8 million a season and that AS Roma are also expected to play a friendly match in Saudi Arabia.
“The yellow and red jersey is unique, it is synonymous with AS Roma around the world, and we are proud that Riyadh Season will now be associated with such an iconic shirt,” Turki Alalshikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, said in a statement. “Like football, Riyadh Season is aimed at bringing people together with its extensive range of international entertainment events and this collaboration will offer even greater visibility through one of the world’s most supported clubs.”
To conclude a remarkable day for Saudi sports and the ambitions of its de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, Newcastle United secured a resounding victory in the Champions League, significantly enhancing the influence of the Saudi-led ownership. The added satisfaction came from the ownership of PSG by Qatar's monarchy, a geopolitical adversary.
Furthermore, it is worth highlighting that Saudi Arabia's recent achievements in the sports arena have coincided with the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This temporal juxtaposition underscores the kingdom's notable success in mitigating the public relations challenges that arose in the aftermath of Khashoggi's killing.
The fact that Saudi Arabia has been able to secure some of its most impressive sports victories during this period serves as a testament to the strategic maneuvering that have allowed them to emerge as a global hub for sports, entertainment and business.
With this in mind, it is essential to remain aware of the pivotal role that sports occupy in Saudi Arabia’s brand management.
The kingdom’s adept use of sports as a political and socio-economic platform has helped it redefine its image and strengthen its position on the world stage. And by securing major sports events and sponsorship agreements, the kingdom is successfully reshaping the global narrative and compelling even its staunchest critics to re-engage with its endeavors on the field.
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