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  • Writer's pictureAlaa Bahnasy

Football, Sportswashing, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nasr Club in December 2022, the Saudi Pro League has become a hot topic everywhere! Reminiscent of the quote from The Godfather, “I will make you an offer you can’t refuse”, Saudi Arabia has attracted top names in football from the most reputable European Leagues to join the top four clubs there. Starting with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Ryad Mehrez, Fabinho, Sadio Mane, Kanté and ending with Neymar, the latest offer from Al Hilal club with $100M in an effort to dominate football worldwide.

Football is a central crossroads between society, politics, and business, which is why it has been one of the top interests of Mohamed Ben Salman’s strategies in shifting away from fossil fuels. The kingdom is seeking attention and popularity; trying to find a way to change the perception of the world on how they think about Saudi Arabia.

KSA wants to break the stigma and prove that it is not only about deserts, oil, and a general lack of human rights. Their ultimate plan is to host the FIFA World Cup 2030, and attracting these big names is the first step in this journey. However, this ambition must have some compromises, the first of which is compliance with the cultural and ethical norms of the nation. Cristiano Ronaldo has a long-time partner; he is not married to her, but lives with her and she shows up with him all the time in an official format, and this is extremely prohibited according to the country’s norms, traditions, and laws. Since the top clubs are owned by the royal family, it seems like the family exempted him in return for other interests! Concerns about double standards have been raised in this regard (1).

Saudi Arabia, much like China, is refocusing on football for the economy among other reasons. As part of Mohamed Ben Salman’s flagship Vision 2030 plan, the Saudi government is investing in sports, particularly football, as a means of diversifying the Saudi economy away from oil and as a tool of soft power to establish international prestige. With this said, there are claims from some Asian Journals and even Amnesty International that these are acts of “sports washing”, a strategy employed by countries or businesses to “wash” the stains of their crimes through the emotive power of sports.

Football can help a country like Saudi Arabia clear its reputation as a regressive and dictatorial state that treats women as second-class citizens and reportedly commits war crimes in places like Yemen (2). Amnesty International has accused Saudi Arabia of embarking on a program of “sportswashing to try to obscure its extremely poor human rights record” (3). Human Rights Watch says, “Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events to deflect from the country’s poor human rights record”; in simple words using sports to cover up your problems (3). Saudi Arabia has been notorious for a slew of human rights violations, including the harsh limits on free speech and women’s rights, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi (3). In order to battle that reputation while also pleasing a quickly rising and youthful population, Ben Salman has turned to sport, which he sees as crucial to addressing that equation. It is critical to understand two things regarding Saudi Arabia: It’s a country populated with youth as 70% of the population is under 30, and those youth are very passionate about football. Attendance at Al Nassr games has increased by 143% since Ronaldo’s arrival. This is expected to spread throughout the league.

In addition to being utilized for sportswashing, investing in football can buy influence and prestige all around the world, as well as projecting soft power. This can be also represented through the Peace talk held in Saudi Arabia this month to end the Ukrainian War in an effort from the kingdom to be a go-to Place in Sports, economics, diplomacy, etc. (4).

It is obvious that the new Saudi regime and strategy that started when King Salman took over the power of the kingdom is seen and sensed as different prospects. The aim of a changed perception of the kingdom is reflected in its economic, cultural, sports, and diplomatic activities. It is an attempt to make use of the soft power to attract tourism and change the West’s perception of them so there can be other topics they are involved in other than war and a lack of freedom.


Written by Alaa Bahnasy.

Cover photo by Md Mahdi.


References

(1) "What is Saudi Arabia's Plan to Dominate Football? | Vantage with Palki Sharma", FirstPost, 16 August 2023.

(2) Rana, Chetan (2023) "How Saudi Arabia under MBS is disrupting the football landscape", The Indian Express, 25 July 2023.

(3) Solhekol, Kaveh (2023) "What is the nation hoping to achieve amid transfer takeover and what happens next?", CNBC, 24 June 2023.

(4) Reuters (2023) "Talks begin in Saudi Arabia on how to end Russia-Ukraine war", The Guardian, 5 August 2023.


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