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A successful Saudi sports blitz takes more than money

James M. Dorsey

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For the second time in a month, Saudi Arabia has discovered that money buys a lot but not everything.

First, there was Argentinian soccer superstar Lionel Messi, who, contrary to Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and several others, turned down a mouthwatering Saudi offer to go to Inter Miami.

Now, there is the apparent collapse of the kingdom’s potential joint 2030 World Cup bid with Greece and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia hoped that an unprecedented tricontinental Asian-African-European bid involving Greece and Egypt would allow it to circumvent world soccer body FIFA’s reluctance to organise the men's World Cup in the same continent and same region twice within a decade.

A successful Saudi bid would have awarded the tournament to the Middle East only eight years after Qatar hosted the event.

A FIFA decision to postpone the 2030 bidding process until late next year allows the kingdom to put together a new proposal should it decide to do so.

To be sure, neither Mr. Messi nor the missed World Cup opportunity nor the US Congress and Justice Department investigations of the controversial golf merger between PGA Tour and LIV Golf, a Saudi-backed rival, put a serious dent in the kingdom’s sports blitz.

Saudi Arabia is likely to make a continued splash with its high-profile, well-funded sports initiative that also includes hosting multiple global and regional events such as this year’s FIFA Club World Cup, the 2027 Asian Cup, and chess, boxing, and horseracing tournaments as well as potential bids for the acquisition of Formula 1, World Wrestling Entertainment, and investments in e-sports and possibly tennis.

Rather than being primarily driven by a desire to polish Saudi Arabia's tarnished human rights record, the blitz is central to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's effort to diversify the kingdom's oil-export-dependent economy and his survival as the country's de facto and future ruler.

Diversification and survival go hand in hand. Sports cater to youth aspirations in a country where 70 per cent of the population is below 35.

“The Middle East may be free of its colonial overlords, but its populations remain captives of European materialism (including) English football clubs," quipped UAE-based investor and commentator Ali Al-Salim, referring to Saudi Arabia's acquisition of Newcastle United, the UAE's pioneering purchase of Manchester City, and a Qatari bid for Manchester United.

Equally importantly, the blitz helps strengthen Saudi Arabia’s position in the international pecking order, improve public health dogged by high rates of obesity and diabetes, turn sports into a profitable pillar of a reformed economy, boost tourism, and potentially attract badly needed foreign investment.

Foreign investment has plummeted since Mr. Bin Salman’s 2017 power grab when he detained scores of prominent businessmen and ruling family members for a shakedown in Riyadh's Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Foreign investment has also been dogged by questions about the feasibility of some of Mr. Bin Salman's science-fiction-like mega projects, foremost among which Neom, a US$500 billion futuristic eco-friendly city on the Red Sea, designed to help accommodate an envisioned jump in population from 33 million today to 55 million in 2030.

The Economist noted that “megaprojects such as Neom have become so grandiose, they risk looking farcical (and Neom is under human-rights scrutiny over treatment of the Howeitat tribe that lived on the land). If investors are seduced, it will be by the promise of returns, not by the razzle-dazzle of Potemkin villages.”

In a little-noticed side effect, the sports blitz pressures Mr. Bin Salman and Saudi authorities to accelerate mega-project construction and delivery.

Saudi Arabia is scheduled to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in Trojena, a winter sports resort in the 2,400-metre-high Sarawat mountains, where snow falls occasionally, that is slated to be built by 2026 as part of Neom.

Trojena would be the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort. Powered by renewable energy, Trojena expects to create an outdoor ski slope by blasting artificial snow at the mountains.

In an interesting twist, some Gulf journalists and analysts with close ties to the government have sought to give Saudi Arabia's soccer player buying spree an anti-Western spin. The twist coincides with what journalist and researcher Matthew Petti calls “an anti-American, homophobic disinformation campaign” in government-aligned Saudi media.

Writing on the website of Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya television network about predominantly Muslim and black players moving to Saudi Arabia, Bahraini analyst Omar Al-Ubaydli asserted that “any practicing Muslim or non-White person living in Europe will immediately understand that it’s probably not just about money.”

Mr. Al-Ubaydli said: "To be clear, the millions of dollars on offer are certainly a major factor. However, a mixture of arrogance and ignorance is making the secular white Westerners who dominate European football – including its media – underestimate Saudi Arabia’s attractiveness.”

Mr. Benzema’s partner, Jordan Ozuna, reportedly converted to Islam days after he announced his transfer from Real Madrid to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad.

No doubt, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, increased racism in European football, and religious belief may play a role in a Muslim or black player’s decision. Nevertheless, if those were driving factors, the question is why they did not seek more harmonious pastures earlier.

Mr. Al-Ubaydli concedes, "That's not to say Saudi Arabia is free from racism. However, a quick look at the national team – and a quick stroll through the grand mosque in Mecca – suggests that black people are unlikely to be subjected to the sort of vitriolic hatred that is becoming increasingly frequent in Europe.”

A quick look at the English and French national teams or public spaces in multiple European cities could lead one to the same conclusion, even though that would be only part of the story.

Saudi Arabia has had its own racial incidents in soccer. Whether the kingdom has fewer incidents, incidents are less frequently reported, or a repressive political system prompts restraint remains unclear.

Whatever the case, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority states have yet to confront their history of slavery or admit they too, have racism problems. So far, Qatar is home to the Arab world's only slavery museum.

Black African players in North Africa complain of being targets of racist chants by Arab fans.

Swedish writer Hana Al-Khamri noted several years ago that “year after year, racist mockery and derogatory language against Afro/black Arabs and black African migrants make it to the TV screens of millions of Arab families gathered to enjoy TV series produced especially for Ramadan.”

In addition, while slavery has been abolished across the Muslim world, Muslim legal scholars have yet to update Islamic law by taking slavery off the books.

The long and short of this is that there is enough blame to go around. No one can wash their hands in innocence. Money can buy Saudi Arabia a lot, but it will take more than deep pockets to ensure that Saudi sports, particularly soccer, stay in the headlines for all the right reasons.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

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1 Comment

Noah James
Noah James
Dec 25, 2023

A successful Saudi sports blitz entails more than just financial investment; it involves a strategic approach that extends beyond monetary resources. The recent strides made in Saudi Arabia to enhance women's participation in sports reflect this multifaceted strategy. In this context, the Women's Two Piece Dress Set Formal becomes symbolic, signifying not only a commitment to athletic excellence but also a celebration of cultural diversity and gender inclusivity.

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