From sports to entertainment, Saudi redefines its global role

An artist's illustration of Neom City. [Courtesy]

When it became clear Argentina’s superstar footballer Lionel Messi was keen on leaving French side Paris Saint-Germain, Al Hilal, one of Saudi Arabia’s best football clubs, presented him with the most lucrative deal in football history, worth a staggering $500 million a year.

If Messi accepted this ridiculous offer, he would be the third Ballon d’Or winner gracing a league which was, just a few years ago, relatively unknown. Nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo had joined Saudi side Al Nassr in December 2022 in a mouth-watering $200 million-a-year deal. French striker Karim Benzema also signed for Al Ittihad, as did international teammate N’Golo Kante.

Three of the four active Ballon d’Or winners would be in Saudi Arabia. It would be a huge flex for the league- holders of a combined 13 of such gongs representing three of the finest clubs in The Gulf.

Messi snubbed the move, however, opting to sign for the United States’ Major League Soccer club Inter Miami, but the point had been made. Saudi Arabia was ready to splash cash to grow their football.

In recent weeks, top players such as Chelsea’s duo of Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy, alongside Wolverhampton’s Ruben Neves, have signed for Saudi clubs. Many other stars have been linked to the league.

That is just in football.

An announcement was recently made that the US-based PGA Tour was partnering with the Saudi backers of LIV Golf. The finest golfers would be playing in Saudi Arabia, some for the first time ever.

After years of feuding, and of PGA clinging onto superstar loyalists to counter the growing influence of LIV, the two struck a truce, with Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, potentially pumping around $3 billion into a new entity backed by the world’s biggest professional golf tour, according to Reuters. Primed to rub shoulders with the world’s most recognisable economic powerhouses, Saudi Arabia is also building a futuristic city in the middle of the desert, set to lure in businesspeople and catapult the country into the future.

The PIF, brandishing a war-chest worth well over $600 billion, now owns sports teams and electric carmakers and is contemplating funding the construction of new cities in the desert with an aim of amassing well over $2 trillion in assets by 2030. This is the country’s Vision 2030.

On its website, Vision 2030 has been labelled “a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world”.

“Whether all these investments earn a big return is beside the point. The fund’s ultimate goal is to diversify the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy and project Saudi influence around the world,” Washington Post wrote.

“A vital element of the country’s Vision 2030 plan, the project is the brainchild of Saudi’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. The site covers an area of more than 10,000 square miles, about the same size as Massachusetts. And it could cost $500 billion to complete.”

The first shot at this desert construction is the Neom megaproject, a planned smart city in Tabuk Province in north-western Saudi Arabia. The total area of Neom is 26,500 km². 

CNBC says that this project is seen by the young Saudi population “as part of this liberalization process”.

Saudi Arabia has grown in leaps and bounds, from a country purely dependent on its vast natural resources to one able to leverage on its growing wealth and influence and explore other industries.

Such diversification, including in sports, promises it a table among the world’s most powerful.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was officially founded in 1932 and has an estimated $34trn worth of natural resources, including extensive oil and natural gas reserves, alongside other mineral deposits.

The country is home to the world’s second-largest stores of oil. This oil was only discovered circa 1938.

It is also home to some of the world’s wealthiest companies. Companiesmarketcap ranks Aramco Saudi as the third largest company in the world by market cap with a value of $2.097 trailing, only trailing Apple and Microsoft. With the dedication of resources to aid achievement of the rather ambitious Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is in a gallop, gunning full-throttle for the finish line which should see the world’s elite in business, as well as in sport, lodge in the country.

According to Al Jazeera, an announcement was recently made that the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would take over four big domestic football clubs: The Riyadh-based Al Nassr and Al Hilal, and the Jeddah-based Al Ittihad and Al Ahli.

“The ownership shift to the Public Investment Fund (PIF) signalled the start of a process to privatise clubs which have historically been under the control of the Ministry of Sports and relied on the state for financial support,” noted Al Jazeera.

More investment will be forthcoming in sports, with the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) saying that this takeover “aims to encourage the sport’s growth by attracting further investment, including by eventually enabling private sector involvement in clubs”.

The plan, SPA outlines, centres around three main areas: creating an appealing investment environment, improving the governance of the clubs in order for them to become more professional and financially sustainable, and boosting their competitiveness by upgrading their infrastructure.

After his move to Al Nassr, Cristiano Ronaldo attracted criticism from his competitors’ supporters. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was expected, they said, to sign for a top club in Europe’s top five leagues, in England, Spain, Italy, Germany or France.

Saudi Arabia has never been seen as a footballing country. The national team is ranked a modest 54th by FIFA. And yet it sprung a surprise in the 2022 Qatar World Cup, opening its campaign by beating eventual winners Argentina, captained by Lionel Messi.

And with golfers trooping to Saudi Arabia, many other sports may just find a home there by the end of the decade.

Reuters reported that a flood of players was abandoning the traditional tour (PGA) “in favour of the petrodollar millions offered by LIV”.

And as it banks on the arrival of names worshipped worldwide by millions of fans, Saudi Arabia believes it will stamp authority overseas and become a leading destination for many future icons.

“Saudi Arabia sees itself as being at the centre of a new world order and investing in sport helps contribute to that national positioning,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in France, as reported by The Financial Times.

Saudi Arabia has also emerged as the leading country in the Middle East in terms of the number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs), according to the annual report by global real estate giant Knight Frank.

Individuals with a net worth of $30 million or more increased by 17 per cent in 2022 and are projected to rise by 10.4 per cent in 2024. The focus on sporting activities could boost these numbers greatly in the next few years. It is speculated that the league is far from done with trying to lure some of the finest football players on earth.

Had Messi accepted Al Hilal’s offer, arguably the best two players in football history would be battling it out in unfamiliar turfs for fans but in familiar, long-craved reunions, reminiscent of El Clasicos, matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona that saw them duel for almost a decade. They would be old and retiring alright, but Saudis understand that old is gold.

In a few years, the best in Saudi could stand up against Europe’s finest, which will be unprecedented.