When Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in January, Saudi Arabian football made a significant statement. This week, it confirmed that the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of the nation will take control of four teams in the Saudi Pro League.
PIF, which has an 80% holding in Premier League team Newcastle United, will have a 75% ownership position in the four SPL teams (Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, and Al Nassr), with a non-profit controlling the other 25%.
As part of the government’s intentions to increase the profile of sport in the nation, several well-known athletes are reportedly considering relocation to Saudi Arabia. Karim Benzema has already signed with Al Ittihad. Lionel Messi received a bid as well, but the Argentinean has chosen to transfer to the MLS.
This news coincides with the announcement that the controversial LIV Golf circuit, financed by Saudi Arabia and debuted last year, will combine with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.
Both announcements bring controversy. The nation has a terrible human rights record, homosexuality is illegal, and there are severe restrictions on freedom of speech and women’s rights. There have also been accusations of ‘sportswashing’.
Here, The Athletic’s Adam Crafton, Jacob Whitehead and Wael Jabir, who is based in Riyadh, discuss the various issues raised by the latest developments.
What has been the reaction in Saudi Arabia to the changes?
Wael Jabir: Huge excitement, especially among fans of those clubs receiving the investment. There is a bit of disappointment and frustration for fans of clubs not part of the deal, but other than that, lots of excitement and people saying: “Who’s next? We’ve got Ronaldo, Benzema, but who are my club getting?”. As for the golf news, looking worldwide, that’s arguably a bigger story, but within the kingdom, there is very little interest in golf, so a lot of people aren’t even aware of the situation.
What do we know about the sovereign wealth fund and the football announcement?
Jacob Whitehead: Well, they have an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle and people thought that might be the extent of their involvement in football. Now they have bought Saudi’s four leading clubs and another four clubs have had massive injections of private investment from four state-owned companies. They include Aramco, the state oil company, and Neom, who are building this super city in the desert.
With eight clubs receiving investment, how does that leave the rest of the league?
Wael Jabir: So the other four that have received investment are not actually in the top division. There are four teams in the top division with investment. They are the traditional top four in Saudi Arabia: Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad, and those are all receiving PIF investment.
The logic behind it being Al Hilal and Al Nassr are the two biggest clubs in the capital, Riyadh, and the other two are the two biggest clubs in Jeddah, the second-largest city. So in essence, they’re taking an existing derby rivalry in the two biggest cities and taking that to the next level. When it comes to the other clubs, it’s a little bit different. Al Qadsiah, who are the biggest club in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, where all the oil is, are being invested in by Saudi Aramco. It’s not part of a huge traditional rivalry, but I think the logic there is developing a big club in the oil-producing region and having all that Aramco tie-up.
What are the views in Europe on the plans?
Adam Crafton: I think initially it was: will they really do it or are they really serious? We knew they’d got Ronaldo, but, you know, there were these stories about there’s going to be more to come: they’ll get Benzema, they’ll go for N’Golo Kante. And what you’re basically seeing is they are really going to do it.
I think from an agent’s perspective it’s an absolute dream because you can basically say we have interest from Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia is interested in basically every famous player over the age of 30. That appears to be the target market at the moment. They want big names, they want a splash. I think the aim is to get probably 20 to 25 players over the next 12 months or so into Saudi Arabia. Having seen what we’ve seen at Newcastle, or whether we’re looking at boxing, when Saudi Arabia decides it wants to do something, it does it and it generally gets its way.
Rejection, revenge and soft power: Inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr
How good is the Saudi league and national team?
Jacob Whitehead: Sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group rates the Saudi Pro League as the 58th best in the world. That puts it around the level of the Scottish Premiership and Serie C in Italy. They’ve said they want to reach the top 10, which is quite a dramatic jump.
Adam Crafton: While the quality of the league may not be that high, the level of support and interest in football in Saudi Arabia is huge and the rivalry between Al Nassr and Al Hilal is a proper rivalry. They hate each other. We could talk about Celtic and Rangers or any kind of equivalent. That’s a serious rivalry. There’s a proper football base there.
Saudi Arabia humble Argentina – but was it the greatest World Cup shock ever?
The national team had a really good World Cup. The best day in Qatar, atmosphere-wise, was the day they beat Argentina and you had thousands of fans driving over the border and a huge interest in supporting certain players. There was a huge Ronaldo fandom, Messi fandom, Benzema fandom, and huge Real Madrid and Barcelona interest as well. So it’s different if, say, the Qatar league was doing this. You’d be a bit more like, well, who’s actually going to go and watch this stuff? Whereas with Saudi there is a genuine fanaticism around football.
Are there similarities to the Chinese Super League project?
Adam Crafton: I don’t think the aspiration is so different. The Chinese investments are obviously hugely linked to the state as well. There is Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia, essentially a diversification of the economy. This also taps into entertainment opening up. The Chinese had this ambition around 2050 in terms of making their football league competitive and having a national team. And there was also this view it was all going to lead up to a World Cup bid for China. That’s not materialised, partly because the Chinese state decided it had other priorities. Covid-19 also played a part in that as well.
The Chinese Super League: From unprecedented salaries to uncertain restart date, unpaid wages and deepening turmoil
With Saudi Arabia, if it doesn’t have a World Cup within the next decade, I would be staggered. I think that’s a massive part of it, making sure it is a relevant market within football. Is it a profoundly different strategy? I’m not sure. Will it be more effective? Possibly, because we keep seeing Saudi Arabia be very, very effective from a sporting strategy point of view. The other thing I’d say is that China never got a Ronaldo or a Benzema-level player.
Jacob Whitehead: I agree with Adam in that I think it’s ultimately a question of scale rather than any kind of different aim. By getting a Ronaldo or a Benzema, you tap into supporting a player rather than a team. It’ll also be interesting to see how they pursue broadcasting rights for it.
Wael Jabir: I agree the strategy is not new. It actually has been done by Qatar and the fact we don’t talk about that now shows you it can go very wrong. The differences here are the passion for football. That’s one thing that wasn’t available in China. The other thing is being connected to the rest of the world. From a social media perspective, in China, they brought in all these superstars but they don’t even have a presence on mainstream social media, so they’re not part of that. In Saudi Arabia, it’s completely different. You look at a club like Al Hilal, who are already one of the top 10 most-followed clubs on Twitter in the world. Saudi Arabia is also trying to attract tourism. They’re trying to do all sorts of other things that tie in with this and that’s what maybe gives it more chance of success.
How will this multi-club model work? Will Newcastle be affected?
Jacob Whitehead: We’ve seen multi-club ownership when teams use a European partner club because you can use that to help with work permit points or to get used to a certain style of play. This won’t work that way. Manchester City have shown you can have this international collective for more of a brand and commercial opportunity, but I can’t see Newcastle sending their 17-year-olds to Al Hilal on loan.
Why Saudi Arabia bought into Premier League soccer
Wael Jabir: In the past, all clubs have been owned by the state, so there was never private ownership of football clubs. So when you’re moving from that into the clubs being owned by funds or different companies, even though they are state-owned companies, that’s seen more as a move towards privatisation. How it works out in practice, with four clubs in the same league being owned by the same company, it could go either way.
Jacob Whitehead: It’s almost like privatisation in name but a nationalisation in spirit. The only other example I can think of where a franchise is all owned by the same owners is in The Hundred in cricket. It’s kind of the IPL-ification of football. That’s quite a clumsy word, but it’s kind of the best comparison.
Why is Saudi Arabia doing this?
Wael Jabir: A big part of it is diversification of the economy, but it’s also about the transformation of society. That’s why I think sports and entertainment domestically help you move towards that. Obviously, this is a country with a history of being arguably the most conservative on the whole planet for a very long time and its entire foundation was based on a conservative identity. So for a new de facto ruler to come in and within five years say, OK, we’re going to throw all that out the window and try to develop a new identity. Obviously, that takes projects of this magnitude and spending of this magnitude to try to do it. This is on the domestic.
How much is this really about a move to a more liberal culture?
Wael Jabir: We have seen genuine moves away from that conservative heritage with so many things, be it in terms of women being able to drive, women being able to go to stadiums, women’s participation in the workforce. I personally worked in an office of six people, two of whom are Saudi women. And this is something that was unheard of even 10 years ago.
I’m someone who was born and raised in this country. I’ve seen how it was 20 years ago. I remember very much as a 10-year-old being chased by the religious police when it was prayer time and we were playing football. The religious police don’t exist anymore, so a lot of these things are genuine changes and they are changes to a large extent that have been met with quite a positive response. The most recent population census in Saudi Arabia puts 65 per cent of the population under 30. Obviously, that’s not a generation that wants to adhere to traditional values. That’s not a population that wants to live the same way their parents or grandparents lived 30, 40 years ago. So these movements are quite popular with the population, but obviouslyca lot of things still remain. You cannot say it is as liberal as Europe or even Dubai yet. However, the fact these changes have happened, I think there is something to be said about that.
How much is this about ‘sportswashing’?
Adam Crafton: If you go back to 2015, 2016, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) became almost the darling of Western governments. He was talking about moving away from the Wahhabist ideology, moving away from the religious police, letting women drive. I mean, the bar was so low. But when you’ve grown up as Wael has in that environment where women weren’t in workplaces and weren’t able to drive, then that is radical in itself. That was undermined by the fact there were people within the kingdom, certainly women, who thought some of these changes weren’t happening quickly enough and there was then a clampdown on those who would dare to speak out against that. You also have the death of Jamal Khashoggi and that is a stain on the Saudis’ reputation that essentially made it a pariah state to, for example, the United States.
You still have issues around executions and the rights of women and LGBT people. The reality is that every sector, whether you talk about Silicon Valley, healthcare, sport, all of these industries are being invested in by Saudi and Saudi funds. And it comes back to that question: do we consider sport more precious in some way that it shouldn’t be infiltrated in this way by states that have received criticism? Or is it just business?
Jacob Whitehead: There’s an element of politics and appeasement to it in the sense that one thing MBS is terrified of is having a repeat of an Arab Spring. And so one of the ways he’s been trying to do that is to kind of appease the Wahhabis, to appease the provinces, all of those different elements. And here you see the clubs who are receiving investment, one in the oil sector in the region. You’ve got the Wahhabist base. You’ve even then got a nod to a technological advance in Neom, a very deliberate kind of choice to these investments which are happening as part of this wider strategy, not just for how Saudi Arabia is being viewed by the wider world but how Saudis are viewing what the new Saudi Arabia is going to be like.
How much are young Saudis aware of the external discussion about their country?
Wael Jabir: They’re very aware. You cannot say everyone feels the same way, but you go on the streets of Saudi Arabia and talk to practically any woman, especially any woman under the age of 40, and they will tell you that it is the best thing since sliced bread. When you think there are at least maybe close to 10 million women who have been impacted by that change, it’s very, very difficult to try to have them think about anything other than how their lives have been transformed completely.
Adam Crafton: This is the great conflict of this whole thing. There is this story to tell in Saudi Arabia about the diversification of the economy, about opening up, about a semblance of liberalisation and opportunity that wasn’t afforded previously. But that all runs alongside the criticism we’ve discussed.
One of the things that bothers me is who is gaining from the Saudi cash investments, whether it be Newcastle residents or golfers. It sometimes seems as though we are expected to celebrate everything that is good without any actual responsibility. The 9/11 families have been raising certain issues throughout the past 24 hours, such as: Has Saudi Arabia been held accountable for its role in 9/11? How seriously has the Saudi government taken the CIA’s report that said MBS had given the go-ahead for Khashoggi’s murder? Both MBS and the Saudi government have called the study’s conclusions into question.
It seems as though we want to rejoice in all the good things. And there are reasons to rejoice. However, if you bring up any of the other topics, it’s a little like, “Oh, you’re just being negative.” You would hope that those inquiries actually receive some type of answers, scrutiny, and responsibility, though I don’t actually anticipate this to happen.