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Saudi Arabia Launches Sportswashing as West Looks Away

Riyadh has stormed the world of sports to improve its international standing.
Sauid Arabia flag

Representational image. | Image courtesy: Flickr

Saudi Arabia has stormed the world of sports. Saudi money has altered the day-to-day realities and long-term future of sports like boxing, golf, horseracing, Formula 1 and football.

This furore over the transfer of a number of elite football players to the Saudi Arabian Football League, coming after similar reactions over the merger of the PGA Tour with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf in June, shows the turbulence caused by Riyadh.

Surprisingly, it took LIV Golf less than a year to get the biggest organisation in the sport to agree to its terms. It was launched in June 2022 and was backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which invested around $2 billion into the competition. 

The launch of LIV Golf divided the world of golf with multiple top-ranked players opting to go for the big prize money. However, some players like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods publicly opposed the competition. Despite opening to a rough start amid a lack of viewership and TV deals, LIV Golf won its battle with the PGA Tour as the latter couldn’t resist the PIF investment. 

PIF is a government-controlled fund” with $650 billion-plus in assets under management. In September 2021, PIF entered the world of football club ownership after taking over the English Premier League (EPL) club Newcastle United for $300 million. Riyadh also purchased a stake in the F1 team Aston Martin and has started hosting the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. 

The PIF investment is part of the country’s ‘Vision 2030’ strategy, backed by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Using these investment, the country wishes to “diversify its economy from its finite oil reserves”.

However, many human rights organisations have alleged that the country is trying to boost its image under the garb of diversification. In the world of sports, this is commonly referred to as sportswashing. 

Sportswashing is when individuals, states, groups or countries “use sports events, teams or sponsorship to boost their public image”. Saudi Arabia is neither the first nor the last one to do it. In the 20th century, authoritarian regimes used sports events to improve their standing in the global order. For example, Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini used the 1934 FIFA World Cup to spread propaganda while Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics for the same purpose. 

The FIFA World Cups and Olympics have long been associated with authoritarian regimes. During the 1970s, FIFA World Cups and qualifiers were held in Argentina and Chile despite “evidence of human rights atrocities committed under conditions of military dictatorship”.

The governing body of football chose to host a world cup qualifier between Chile and the Soviet Union at the national stadium in the capital city of Santiago in 1976. A few years ago, the same stadium was used by the military dictatorship to imprison 20,000 political prisoners who were beaten, abused, tortured and assassinated at the site. 

To evade criticism, FIFA claimed that it chooses to remain apolitical in matters involving domestic or international conflicts. The same explanation was offered when it chose Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Despite international ridicule and criticism by prominent human rights organisations, the World Cup was held in Qatar amid concerns over the labour rights of migrant workers, human rights abuses and mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people. While FIFA earned billions in profits from the competition, Qatar participated in a month-long exercise of sportswashing. 

Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ strategy involves a desire to host the Football World Club. As per reports, Saudi Arabia may submit “a tripartite bid together with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup”. The country has already submitted a bid to host the AFC Women’s Asian CUP 2026. Saudi Arabia’s courting of FIFA president Gianni Infantino can be seen as a part of its strategy. 

The potential bid has already been criticised by human rights organisations. 

“The mistakes in awarding the most-watched event in football to Qatar must not be repeated. Women, journalists, members of the LGBTQ community and all fans of the game should ask how it could possibly be held in a country where their rights are not respected. The players should not be expected to compete where human rights are so utterly compromised,” Minky Worden, director of Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian

PIF’s takeover of Newcastle United also caused uproar in the British media primarily due to the EPL ignoring statements about Saudi Arabia by human rights organisations. EPL, as has been the tradition this century, looked away. Before PIF, there were the Abu Dhabi-based owners of Manchester City, accused of sportswashing by the Amnesty International. 

Ironically, Manchester City are current EPL champions; the team also won the UEFA champions league, the premier club competition in the world. This happened while the EPL had put 117 charges on Manchester City concerning financial doping. The EPL investigation is currently under way. 

English football’s turn towards sportswashing goes back to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who bought Chelsea Football Club in 2003. Abramovich’s links with Russian President Vladimir Putin garnered headlines, but nothing happened until the Ukraine war. Abramovich was ultimately forced to sell the club after being hit with sanctions imposed against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

The discussion of EPL is important here because that’s what PIF and the Saudi Arabian Football League (also known as Saudi Pro League) are trying to mimic. EPL is the richest and most competitive club league in the world; while there are others, like Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain), Ligue 1 (France) and Serie A (Italy), no league can match EPL in finances.

In the 2022-23 season, the EPL spent more than €2.5 billion; the second on the list was Serie A at €763.27 million. This financial dominance has largely been attributed to television contracts and foreign investment. 

To create a league second to EPL, PIF took over ownership control of four football clubs in the Saudi Pro League—Al-Ahlil, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad. This was a rare moment in football history when a country decided to own its football clubs; it also gave the state a chance to control the transfer of players to these respective clubs. 

As a quick fix to grow the league, PIF started buying well-known football players from across Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo joined the league in 2022 after a fallout with Manchester United. In June 2023, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema joined Al-Hilal for a deal worth $643 million.

EPL club Wolves midfielder and captain Ruben Neves joined Al-Hilal along with Chelsea player Kalidou Koulibaly. Two other Chelsea players, N’Golo Kante and Eduoard Mendy, also joined the Saudi league. This was followed by the signings of Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Jota (Celtic), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan)and Sergej Milinkovic (Lazio). Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and midfielder Fabinho are the latest players linked with a move to the Saudi league. 

There are two common denominators in all these transfers; most are free transfers and players receive huge salaries compared to their previous clubs. Even the financial might of EPL clubs has failed to match the salaries being offered by Saudi clubs. Naturally, there has been an uproar. English football pundits Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville have asked the EPL administration to step in to stop Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing. This happened after Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva was linked with a move to the Saudi League. 

The allegations of sportswashing are not without merit; as with Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s move into sports is aimed at improving its international standing. However, there is a degree of hypocrisy in some critiques, especially the ones from the EPL.

In many ways, Saudi Arabia is doing to EPL what the latter has done to smaller European leagues for over a decade. Many European football clubs would relate to EPL clubs’ anxiety over losing their talents to the Saudi League; that’s because clubs like Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have long bought players from smaller clubs by promising higher wages and fame. On their part, clubs like Dortmund (Germany), Sporting Lisbon (Portugal), and Marseilles (France), among others, accepted their fate and sought to promote younger players. 

Moreover, players can hardly be criticised for trying to make more money at the tail end of their careers. Regarding sportswashing, while club administrations and sports bodies have received fair criticism due to their links to Saudi Arabia, the buck must stop with respective governments. 

 The US government is in no place to stop the merger of PGA Tour with LIV Golf. This is because the Joe Biden sells arms worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia—a $5 billion deal was signed in April 2022. The previous Donald Trump administration was even more complicit and open in courting Saudi Arabia. 

Similarly, the UK government renewed its arms sales to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 despite allegations of Saudi “violations of international law during conflict in Yemen”. The war in Yemen has become a humanitarian catastrophe; despite that, Western countries continue to engage with Saudi Arabia. The UK government’s stance can be gauged from the fact that it encouraged “the Premier League to approve the controversial Saudi Arabia-backed takeover of Newcastle United”.

In such a scenario, PIF is likely to alter the landscape of global sports; increasingly, famous sports athletes would be willing to move to Saudi Arabia. While there are exceptions who didn’t get swayed by money, most athletes have silently accepted Saudi proposals.

 Apart from golf, football and F1, there are already premier boxing events that have taken place in the country. Moreover, the lack of action from the Western governments will only accelerate the process. If the Saudi bid for the FIFA World Cup 2030 goes through, there will be a bigger sportswashing splash than Qatar. 

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