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The Rise of Saudi Arabia as a Global Sporting Powerhouse

Saudi Arabia, the second-largest oil producer in the world, has seen a tremendous shift in recent years. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s inspirational leader, is working to diversify the country’s economy and draw attention away from human rights problems to the nation’s booming sports sector. This article explores Saudi Arabia’s ambitious quest to establish itself as a major force in world sports, highlighting significant advancements and investments.

From the hegemony of oil to the excellence of sport

Saudi Arabia has long been associated with its enormous oil reserves and its status as the protector of the sacred mosques in Makkah and Medina, drawing countless numbers of Muslim travelers each year for the Hajj and Umrah. However, the kingdom has come under fire from other countries for its ties to Wahhabism and apparent backing of Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia had been under a lot of scrutiny due to issues with women’s rights and human rights.

Saudi Arabia is currently working hard to change how the world perceives it. It seeks to establish itself as a center for international sports and a moderate Islamic power. This tactical change is a component of a larger goal to lessen the country’s dependency on oil, spur economic expansion, and engage with the world through sports diplomacy.

A Risky Shopping Spree

The ambitious sporting aspirations of Saudi Arabia recently included a huge spending splurge in the football industry. The signing of well-known football players by regional clubs has significantly improved the domestic football scene in the country. Prominent Saudi clubs have lured stars like Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, and Sadio Mané among others with lucrative contracts and opulent facilities.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, is in the fore of this sports revolution. His “2030 Vision” lays forth a detailed strategy to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy, increase its regional clout, and encourage young people to participate in sports as a way to live better lifestyles. MBS is of the opinion that putting money into sports will not only diversify the economy but also boost tourism, create job opportunities, and attract foreign capital.

Regional Ambitions and Competition

Gulf neighbors of Saudi Arabia have also shown an increase in interest in football and significant financial investment. Following Qatar’s successful hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, football’s popularity soared throughout the region. Leading football clubs in England and Europe have received significant investments from nations like Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince imagines elite footballers competing in front of domestic viewers, raising the sporting profile of the country.

A Wide Range of Sports Investments

The Saudi Arabian entry into the world of sports goes far beyond football. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) events will be held in Saudi Arabia thanks to a historic 10-year, $100 million per year contract negotiated by the Saudi Sports Ministry. The kingdom once lavishly supported sports like international boxing, tennis, horse racing, Formula 1, and the renowned Dakar Rally, an endurance off-road race. Even international golf tournaments and a stake in a Formula 1 franchise have been entered by the country. Newcastle United F.C., an English football team, was bought by Saudi Arabia in 2021.

One of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, is principally responsible for facilitating these transactions. However, the US was very interested in and concerned by Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of LIV Golf, a US-based PGA Tour rival. The Department of Justice and US Senators started looking into the arrangement in June 2023 after hearing reports that a repressive regime was trying to influence American institutions to boost its public image.

Sportswashing and International Issues

Saudi Arabia is not the only country under fire for “sportswashing.” China, Russia, and more recently Qatar, have all dealt with similar accusations in recent years. Despite receiving criticism for hosting the FIFA World Cup, Qatar won praise for its cutting-edge venues and effective event administration.

The degree of Saudi Arabia’s financial investment in the sports business is still up for dispute. Official statistics are not available, but estimations indicate that the country is spending a lot of money on esports and other sports. Savvy Games Group, a Saudi Arabian subsidiary, is said to have invested almost $38 billion into the $184 billion global gaming sector, indicating a goal to create, publish, and acquire significant video games.