Soccer in Saudi Arabia has entered a new era — the era of having global superstars play on Saudi turf.
The 31-year-old Brazilian soccer star Neymar just became the latest addition to the now star-studded Pro League, which also includes five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are among the most popular players in the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in the U.S., in an interview with CNBC. “This is what we’re doing by bringing household names like that to the Saudi league. We are elevating the level of play.”
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, is the financial vehicle driving these high-priced transactions. Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairs the PIF board.
In June, the PIF took over the country’s four major domestic clubs: Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli.
“Saudi Pro League is the top men’s professional soccer league in Saudi Arabia.” said Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. “So, like most countries, they have a national league that is popular, and people follow. And what’s happening here is that the government, through the investment fund, is channeling money into the clubs so that they can acquire players.”
Saudi Arabia’s love for soccer is not limited to the domestic league. In 2021, the PIF bought a majority stake in the English soccer club Newcastle United. Critics argue that Saudi Arabia is using sports to distract from human rights abuses in the country, a term known as “sportswashing.” The Saudi government is notorious for its crackdown on dissent and harsh punishments for criminals, including executions.
“Sportswashing is essentially synonymous with trying to cleanse image and reputation,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the Skema Business School. “And clearly, Saudi Arabia is a country that, over recent decades, has had a particular reputation. Often not a good one. In some cases, very negative.”
In response to criticisms of sportswashing, Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in the U.S., told CNBC: “Every single measure that is taking place in Saudi Arabia, every reform measure, every initiative, and every program that is currently being implemented in Saudi Arabia is being implemented for one of two major reasons. It is either being implemented to advance the interests of Saudi Arabia as a country or to improve the lives of Saudi people, or both. So every other consideration is a distant second.”
Watch the video above to find out why Saudi Arabia is doubling down its investment in professional soccer and more.