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The Saudi Honey Trap
Saudi Arabia’s record-shattering offer for Kylian Mbappé proves that the kingdom’s spending, and its ambitions, know no bounds.
Once renowned for wielding its influence solely through the international oil market, Saudi Arabia has undergone a startling transformation, setting its sights on a new realm to showcase its ever-growing power: the world of sports.
With an insatiable appetite for investments and an ambitious vision, the kingdom has leveraged its deep pockets to disrupt the global sporting arena, amass a burgeoning empire, and assert influence on a global scale, leaving a trail of apprehension in its wake.
The latest example of Saudi Arabia’s unconstrained ambitions occurred Monday, when Al Hilal, a football club controlled by the oil-rich kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, submitted a record-breaking bid for French football star Kylian Mbappé.
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Mbappé, the top scorer at the 2022 World Cup, was put up for sale by Paris Saint-Germain after the 24-year-old announced that he did not plan to renew his contract with the French side and instead sought to join Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid. Sensing an opportunity, Al-Hilal proposed a groundbreaking €300 million transfer offer for Mbappé (approx. $332 million), which PSG promptly accepted. The Saudi club will now try to lure Mbappé with a world-record salary for what could potentially be a one-year contract.
Al-Hilal, which is one of the four football clubs owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund chaired by the kingdom’s de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, is among the Saudi teams spending extraordinary sums as part of the kingdom’s football feeding frenzy. To date, the club has signed Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly, Portuguese midfielder Rúben Neves, and Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
Al Hilal previously offered Lionel Messi more than £350m a year to join from PSG but the World Cup winner opted to snub the Saudi side and move to Inter Miami instead. (Author note: Messi still has an ongoing tourism partnership with the kingdom worth $25 million).
Among the kingdom’s major signings for its domestic league was Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed a $200 million-per-year deal with Al Nassr. Former Real Madrid striker and current Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema joined Jeddah’s Al Ittihad in a deal worth more than $200 million for two-and-a-half years. Others such as French superstar N’Golo Kante, signed deals worth more than $100 million.Others such as Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Algerian star Riyad Mahrez have also been linked with moves to the kingdom.
Should Mbappé end up playing in Saudi Arabia, it'd be yet another major acquisition for the kingdom, which is seeking to increase its soft power on the world stage through unprecedented investments in the global sports industry.
Since 2016, Saudi Arabia has spent billions on high-profile international sports and entertainment events. The strategic investments are part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ masterplan that aims to reduce Saudi’s economic dependence on oil but it also serves as a multi-pronged soft power strategy that includes boosting tourism and other economic sectors, diplomacy, and reputation laundering.
The kingdom hosts a yearly Formula 1 race, biannual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) shows, and the world’s richest horse race. It also financed the purchase of Newcastle United, a football team in the English Premier League and helped bring about the capitulation of a major U.S. sports organization through its hostile takeover of the PGA Tour.
Saudi’s sports drive doesn’t stop there. The kingdom is set to host heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury’s next fight against Francis Ngannou—a bout that is sponsored by a subsidiary of the kingdom’s tourism authority—and is reportedly in talks with the ATP men’s tour about potential investments in tennis. Saudi Arabia is also in the midst of hosting an eight-week esports festival in Boulevard Riyadh City, a 220-acre entertainment zone.
The kingdom’s domestic football league is even working with agency giant IMG to secure global broadcast deals to further its international exposure.
While Saudi Arabia claims that its sports investments are in the service of economic diversification, it is difficult to imagine how the vast majority of its investments will yield financial dividends.
Then again, it was never about profit margins.
On Nov. 4, 2017, hundreds of Saudi royals, tycoons and ministers were detained at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in what became the most significant purge in the kingdom’s history.
Over the course of a year, the involuntary guests were reportedly put through psychological abuse and, in some cases, torture before being told to sign over their assets to the Saudi state. While Saudi authorities insisted it was a crackdown on rampant corruption, the move allowed Bin Salman to consolidate power by sidelining dissenting factions within the royal family and assuming control of the various security branches in the country.
In 2019, Saudi authorities announced that “settlements were reached with 87 individuals after confessing to charges filed against them.” More than $107 billion in assets were seized, including real estate, companies, securities, and cash. While this does not represent the total value of the assets seized, it suggests the scale of Bin Salman’s shakedown. Many of these assets were later transferred to the PIF, which, in turn, spurred investments in global companies, financial institutions, as well as sports and entertainment properties.
While PIF is supposed to be a sovereign wealth fund that serves the public, it effectively operates as Bin Salman’s personal coffers, whereby he can invest in gigaprojects and sports ventures to further expand his influence. Among these mega projects is NEOM, the $500 billion city to be constructed on the northwest coast of Saudi Arabia, and Qiddiya, the city-scale project near Riyadh.
Although sports make up a small portion of Bin Salman’s projects, they are essential to the success of his political ambitions as a whole. By wielding a PIF imbued with the spoils from his fallen foes, Bin Salman has been able to disrupt the global sports market with unprecedented figures. He has managed to expand his global influence, assert regional supremacy and create a domestic bubble of distraction to occupy his young population—and there is no price the prince won’t pay to keep up an endless offering of bread and circuses.
Football is a pivotal component of Bin Salman’s sports socialization strategy for Saudi youth. It is easily the most popular sport in the kingdom and is considered to be a national pastime. By investing in the kingdom’s domestic football league and welcoming some of the world’s top footballers to the fold, the crown prince has won favour with millions of Saudi football fans, especially those whose favourite clubs received significant cash injections from the PIF. This bears resemblance to Saudi’s takeover of Newcastle United, which many local fans welcomed.
This form of checkbook diplomacy extends beyond football and into other sports that Saudis don’t even watch or play, including tennis and golf. It is also a component of it’s official foreign policy strategy, whereby the kingdom wields its oil wealth to buy loyalty. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has applied checkbook diplomacy—referred to as “aid”—in its relationships with Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan, Palestine, and Sudan, among others. It is how the kingdom wins its friends. Yet by infiltrating the global sports market, Saudi is able to conduct checkbook diplomacy with U.S. and European sports organizations and teams, as was the case with Newcastle and the PGA Tour.
Mbappé’s record-breaking offer from Al-Hilal is the latest manifestation of Saudi’s checkbook diplomacy. It is a state-funded strategy to influence European football—a tantalizing honey trap that could spell the end of football’s financial norms and further cement Saudi as a frontrunner in the sport’s future.
As stadiums become the modern battlegrounds for showcasing geopolitical clout, Saudi Arabia’s foray into sports has become a focal aspect of its broader agenda to shape the world stage. The figure that the kingdom is willing to spend on Mbappé may be eye-watering but it is nothing in comparison to the power and influence it will reap in return.
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