Saudi's power play transcends sportswashing
Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy was never really about sportswashing; it is about power, prestige, and an insatiable desire to wield global influence.
When I hailed a taxi on an exceptionally humid day in Cairo a couple of weeks ago, I could not have imagined that the incident would leave a lasting impression on me that would become the basis of this article.
The details are still vivid. The driver was middle-aged: a heavy smoker with a salt-and-pepper beard and a receding hairline that seemed to have nothing left to conquer. He toggled between the various news stations on his (now vintage) FM radio receiver, eventually settling on a sports talk show.
The gnarled sedan turned onto the Nile corniche in the direction of the downtown core. Street lights passed in blurs while the sound of angry men and even angrier cars filled my ears. Then, about halfway through the trip, the driver—let’s call him Ali—turned to me and asked: “What do you think about the Mohamed Salah situation?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Saudi Arabia—will they buy him?”
I paused to consider his question. I was not in the habit of sharing my identity or my profession with strangers in Egypt. Journalists were persona non grata under the presiding military dictatorship and I preferred to operate under the radar. Instead of telling Ali that I was actually a sports reporter with a keen interest in Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy, I responded as though I was nothing more than an average Egyptian football fan.
“I’m hearing he is not going to go.”
“He will go,” the driver insisted shaking his head at me as though I were a naive fool.
“Liverpool insists they want to keep him.”
“What is Liverpool compared to Saudi money?”
I admitted that Ali had a point there, which seemed to build his confidence and momentum. “The Gulf buys what it wants,” Ali continued, the frustration palpable in his voice. “Qatar bought a World Cup; the Emirates bought our national zoo; now Saudi will buy Salah. It’s not like they haven’t done it before—they bought Tiran and Sanafir, didn’t they?
“Yes, they did,” I replied, remembering the time when the Egyptian government consented to ceding sovereignty over the two islands to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Though uninhabited, the two islands held immense strategic significance and the Egyptian regime’s decision to relinquish control underscored the changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and North Africa region. While the transfer of Egypt’s territory to Saudi Arabia was widely criticized by Egyptian society, it made no difference in the final outcome.
Egypt, once the main referent of the Arab world in the global arena, had been reduced to a private garage sale for ascending oil sheikhs.
Meanwhile, in the six years that followed the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir, Saudi Arabia has continued to steer the course towards becoming a regional hegemon. While most of its Arab rivals experienced political and economic crises in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the kingdom emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, taking significant steps to improve its business environment, attract foreign investment and create private-sector employment.
Much of Saudi Arabia’s ambitions are laid out in its 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.
Sports, in particular, have been among Saudi’s most prominent objectives. The kingdom has made strategic investments in sports ranging from football—where Saudi Arabia purchased a controlling share in English Premier League team Newcastle United and transformed its domestic league by luring superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar—to golf, Formula One and MMA, where the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund acquired a minority stake in the Professional Fighter’s League (PFL) with plans to host “mega events” in the near future.
Although sports make up a relatively small portion of Saudi Arabia’s overall investments—the kingdom invested more money in U.S. venture capital funds, for example—its unprecedented sports drive has been among its most controversial and divisive achievements.
Critics refer to the kingdom’s sports investments as “sportswashing,” a popular term used to describe how countries use sports to distract from ongoing abuses, the most recent of which include a Human Rights Watch report which alleged that Saudi border guards have “killed at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023.”
Saudi Arabia has also escalated its attacks on freedom of expression. A few weeks ago, a Saudi court sentenced a man to death based on his Twitter activity, the latest in a series of extreme verdicts over social media content.
However, in an interview with Fox News last week, Mohamed bin Salman–the crown prince and de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom–seemed undeterred by the sportswashing connotation.
"If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1 percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing," bin Salman said.
Then, after the interviewer asked him whether he was bothered by the term, he replied: "I don't care—I’m aiming for another one and a half percent. Call it whatever you want we're going to get that one a half percent."
While bin Salman’s response may be surprising to some, it affirms a view I have long held that sportswashing was a crude and incomplete way of analyzing Saudi’s interests, which are far more complex and elaborate that a single keyword could encompass.
Over the past few years, I have argued that Saudi’s strategic investments were part of a complex political agenda to expand the kingdom’s global image, assert regional supremacy and create a bubble of patriotic distraction to occupy its young population—the modern day equivalent to Rome’s bread and circuses.
This was particularly evident as Saudi Arabia celebrated its 93rd National Day on Sep. 23. To mark the festivities, Al Nassr—one of the four domestic football clubs owned by Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund—released a short clip that showed Ronaldo wearing traditional Saudi attire while wielding a ceremonial sword.
The video, which featured three Saudi kids sneaking into the Al-Nassr facility only to find the club’s foreign stars—Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Marcelo Brozovic, Alex Telles and Otavio—taking part in traditional Saudi customs, ended on a wide short of Ronaldo wearing a white thobe and a black bisht over it while holding a sword as he performs a folkloric Saudi dance called the ardah.
"All together. For one flag. We Dream, and Achieve,” read the caption.
The video, which has been viewed more than 2.5 million times on Twitter alone, emphasizes how Saudi Arabia’s football spending spree stretches far beyond basic sportswashing (as defined above). It is also institutionalized propaganda aimed at reinforcing Saudi nationalism and pride while promoting Saudi identity and culture abroad.
Saudi Arabia’s accrued football stars are more than just athletes; they are walking advertisements that the kingdom has learned to wield in their efforts to control the global narrative.
In my scoop for The New York Times earlier this year, I revealed the details of Lionel Messi’s ongoing partnership with Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority, which is valued at $25 million over three years and includes publicized vacations in Saudi with his family, as well as a series of promotional material and regular social media posts.
Since then, details from other notable contracts have come to light. Brazilian superstar Neymar is reportedly being paid more than half-a-million dollars for each Instagram post promoting Saudi Arabia.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, has proven to arguably Saudi Arabia’s most significant acquisition. Apart from his recent promotional appearance for Al-Nassr, Ronaldo has publicly embraced Saudi culture by mimicking a traditional dance as part of his goal celebration and dressing in traditional garments. These incidents are then distributed across Saudi social media channels for the world to see.
Earlier this month, the 38-year-old was the main attraction in an Asian Champions League match between Al-Nassr and Persepolis FC in Iranian capital of Tehran. The match marked the first time that a Saudi team competed on Iranian soil since the two regional rivals restored relations after severing diplomatic ties in 2016.
Ronaldo’s appearance in Tehran, which sparked scenes of chaos in the country including a mass attempt to storm the team hotel to catch a glimpse of the star, was yet another example of how Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy was never really about sportswashing as we have come to interpret it; it is about power, prestige, and an insatiable desire to wield global influence.
As I pen these last words, I am reminded of something my taxi driver Ali said to me as we argued over Mo Salah and the future of Arab politics: “It doesn’t matter what we think. In the end, its the ones with the most money will own the future.”
Little did he know how wise those words truly were.
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