The sports pages have been rife with stories involving Saudi Arabia recently, with the kingdom making headlines in everything from the English Premier League to women’s pro wrestling.
None of this is a coincidence. The oil-rich nation has spent approximately $2.2 billion since 2017 aiming to rebrand itself as the Middle East’s newest sports and tourism hub—an effort known as Vision 2030 that is receiving harsh scrutiny from human-rights advocates and forcing some in the sports world to make hard choices.
On Thursday, the second edition of the Aramco Saudi Ladies International golf tournament kicked off in Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City. Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund agreed to invest $200 million in a new pro golf endeavor led by former PGA star Greg Norman. In October, the $500 billion sovereign wealth fund acquired English Premier League’s Newcastle United for $409 million. The kingdom hired Boston Consulting Group to pursue its FIFA World Cup hosting ambitions, after signing a record-breaking 10-year, $650 million deal with Formula One.
More than a few critics have referred to Saudi Arabia’s efforts as “sportswashing”—a term used when an individual, group or state uses sports to improve its public image.
“Saudi Arabia has an awful human rights record: the conflict in Yemen, the brutal murder of [The Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident] Jamal Khashoggi and the treatment of prisoners in Saudi prisons,” said Lucy Rae, the spokesperson of Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights organization. “But that’s not what the kingdom’s rulers want you to think of when you think of Saudi Arabia. Instead, under their Vision 2030 and an expensive PR campaign, they want to reposition KSA as a tourism and leisure hub to pivot the economy away from oil. But tourism and torture don’t mix. Central to their plan in sportswashing.”
Saudi Arabia launched its Vision 2030 in 2016, part of an effort to keep up with its neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar was the pioneer, diversifying its portfolio by investing in sports. In 2010, it repositioned itself as the Middle East’s soccer hub by winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In 2012, the country’s investment authority purchased French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Meanwhile, in 2008, UAE’s minister of presidential affairs, Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family with a net worth of $22 billion, bought Manchester City FC.
Before making his move to catch up to Doha and Abu Dhabi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first implemented various reforms as part of Vision 2030, such as lifting the ban on female drivers, allowing women to attend sporting events and reducing the kingdom’s strict male-guardianship system.
According to Rae, these reforms are the tip of the iceberg. “They say we’re a progressive thinking country with these shiny sports events, but we can’t have continued holding of prisoners on no charge, no access to family, no access to legal representation, which goes against human rights laws around the world and even with a within their own region.”
While many sporting events welcome Saudi Arabia’s vast financial resources, not every attempt to bring famous athletes to the kingdom has been successful. In 2019 Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a $3 million appearance fee (though he cited the long distance, not moral objections, as his reason for skipping). Meghan MacLaren, a top British golfer on the Ladies European Tour, however, was more explicit. In 2020, she announced she would boycott all events in Saudi Arabia, refusing to participate in “sportswashing.” On the esports front, Saudi Arabia’s attempt to make its planned futuristic city, Neom, the main sponsor for the League of Legends European Championship was quickly scrapped following an outcry from fans.
Still, there have been plenty of takers. On Oct. 20, Saudi Arabia launched a five-month-long festival, called Riyadh Season, to celebrate and promote its capital city. Included in the more than 7,500 events planned are: the aforementioned women’s golf tournament; a game between Argentina’s Boca Junior and FC Barcelona, paying tribute to the late soccer legend Diego Maradona; and a friendly between PSG and a team of Saudi soccer stars, coached by Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager and now FIFA’s chief of global football development. The face of Riyadh Season is unsurprisingly PSG’s newest superstar, Lionel Messi, who features prominently in promotions for the event, along with his teammates, Neymar Jr and Kylian Mbappe.
The Saudis’ biggest sports target, however, is still the World Cup. Although the likelihood of hosting the world’s most important soccer tournament before 2034 is very low, Saudi officials seem to be exerting influence.
“I think that Saudi Arabia is increasingly influential, or should I say Saudi Arabia’s cash is increasingly influential, inside FIFA,” said Simon Chadwick, the director of the Center for Eurasian Sport at EM Lyon Business School. “A biennial World Cup solves the problem. Because I’m told China will get 2030, then the earliest that Saudi Arabia can have a tournament is 2034. That’s 14 years away, and clearly, FIFA and [FIFA president Gianni] Infantino can’t risk losing the Saudi Arabian investment.”
A biennial World Cup “opens the possibility of 2028 in Saudi Arabia and 2030 in China,” Chadwick said, “and everybody’s happy.”