It is time to change how we talk about Saudi sports
Read my speech from Play the Game 2024, where I offered new perspectives on how best to understand Saudi Arabia's sports strategy.
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I’m on my way home from Trondheim, Norway, where I spent the last week surrounded by intrepid journalists, activists, whistleblowers, and academics who converged at the Play the Game 2024 conference with the shared objective of delving into the shadowy corners of the sports world.
From extensive sessions spanning topics such as illegal gambling in sports, the changing landscape of sports media, and the insights gleaned from Qatar 2022, to late nights spent in rock-n-roll dive bars that conclude only when the brooding bartender finally ushers us out, the past week has been nothing short of exhilarating.
It also served as a reminder that, despite the solitary nature of the work, we are not alone.
This was my first time at Play the Game, an initiative run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan) that, in its own words, “aims at raising the ethical standards of sport and promoting democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport.” I was invited by the organization to give a 10-min talk about the Saudi Arabia and the diminishing role of sportswashing in its political agenda.
It is a topic I have discussed in the past but it bears repeating as activists and fellow media members grapple with how best to approach coverage of the kingdom in the lead-up to the 2034 World Cup. It it an important discussion that I was happy to contribute to.
You can find a version of my speech below.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that while we are all sitting here safely enjoying this remarkable conference, Palestinians continue to be killed by Israeli bombs for the collective crime of being born in Gaza. As believers in human rights, it is our duty and obligation to continue to push for a permanent ceasefire.
Moving on, I wanted to begin by answering a question I get asked at least once a week: how did you get into covering sports and politics? And why the Middle East?
The answer is simple: I didn’t have a choice. Unlike many people in the privileged Western world, I spent the first half of my life living under the military dictatorship of Egypt, where I was born, as well as the repressive monarchies of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But it was Egypt where I got my first glimpse of the undeniable ties of sports and politics.
I moved back to Egypt from Bahrain in 2007 at the age of 15. And like all other Egyptian teenagers, I fell in love with football. I became obsessed with Al Ahly, which is Egypt’s most popular football club, as well as Africa’s most successful club. Chances are, if you meet another Egyptian, they’ll likely tell you they’re an Al Ahly fan.
Anyway, in 2007, Al Ahly was celebrating its 100th year anniversary and invited Barcelona FC for a friendly match. This was the legendary Barcelona with Ronaldinho, Eto, and a young Leo Messi. I was at the match, seated in a section of the stadium called Talta shemal, which translates to the third section on the left—the cheap seats. That was where Al Ahly’s hardcore football fans—the Ultras Ahlawy—made their home.
Unlike some of the far-right Ultras you may have heard of, the Ultras Ahlawy only picked fights with two entities: the police and the government. My cousins were members of this group and I tagged along as a naive 15 year old. And it was there that I witnessed the first of many examples of police brutality. I watched as cops surrounded the section and picked out Ultras from around me and beat the crap out of them with batons before arresting them.
That scene is burned into my mind—a trauma I will never forget. But what was more important was the fact that when the 2011 Egyptian revolution happened, those same Ultras were essential to helping protestors navigate the streets of downtown Cairo and battle the riot police. They were the ones who had the experience.
Bothaina Kamel, the first woman to run for the Egyptian presidency, credits the Ultras for saving her life during the revolution.
Isn’t that remarkable. A group of football fans became pivotal revolutionaries.
Naturally, this shaped my understanding of sports and politics for years to come. I went on to become a sports journalist focused on the intersection of sports and politics. And though I have reported on and from a wide range of countries, one of the ones I found most intriguing is Saudi Arabia.
The turning point for me was on Jan. 1 2023, when I was able to acquire Leo Messi’s contract with Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority. Yes, the same Messi who was playing Al Ahly on the day that would shape my career.
Months later, I published the details for the New York Times along with fellow journalist Tariq Panja and it became one of the biggest stories of my career.
It was the first time that a football superstar’s partnership with the kingdom had been laid bare, offering rare insight into Saudi’s contractual dealings.
Here are some of the key things you should know:
Messi is paid approx. $2 million for his social media posts promoting the kingdom, per year.
He is paid another $2 million per promotional visit to the country. These includes visits with his family, where they are riding camels and watching artisans weave straw hats
Another $2 million per year for charity work in Saudi Arabia
All of this amounted to $25 million over 3 years, with an option for renewal.
But here is the big one:
Messi could not say anything to “tarnish” Saudi Arabia’s image or reputation. Take that in for a moment. Saudi Arabia basically bought arguably the greatest footballer of all time’s silence for a grand total of $25 million.
Who do you think got the better end of the deal?
It was also a key example of how 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 option, this is an example of how Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy has gone beyond sportswashing. In truth, sportswashing—a term we use to describe reputation laundering—was a rather 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, especially with its rival the UAE, 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 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.
Now, consider the reasons why Saudi Arabia would want to produce such elaborate propaganda pieces for their own citizens. Is this really about distracting from human rights abuses? Didn’t Mohammed bin Salman basically announce to the world in an interview that he doesn’t care about sportswashing?
Think about it: Saudi Arabia is hosting all these major events, buying up sports leagues, and buying the silence of some of the most popular athletes in the world, all while committing grave human rights abuses at an exceptional rate. A few days ago, we heard from Saudi activist Lina Al-Hathloul, one of the bravest people I know, who told us in devastating detail how Saudi is now more of a police state than ever before. They aren’t even trying to hide it.
In fact, Bin Salman and the Saudi state derive a sense of power from the fact that these leagues and athletes continue to crawl on their hands and knees to collect paycheques from him, in spite of the human rights abuses.
So if we want to understand Saudi’s sports strategy, we have to understand the nuances of sports and politics in the region—stories like the one I started this speech with that highlight the power that sports and their fans can wield.
We also have to understand Saudi’s political intentions and where sports falls into their ambitions. Messi’s contract shows us that Saudi is looking for more than reputation laundering. It is looking for power, prestige, and an insatiable desire to control the global narrative.
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