Here's how Saudi Arabia under MBS is disrupting the football landscape

The most popular sport in the world, football has an unmatched capacity to win people over.Under the guidance of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has set out on an ambitious quest to establish itself as a major footballing power and capitalise on all of the sport’s potential, from its broad cultural influence to its untapped economic opportunities.Saudi Arabia, which is slated to host the AFC Asian Cup in 2027, has also submitted a proposal to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030. Most significantly, though, Saudi Arabia has now established itself as the biggest disruptive power in club football, probably ever, following earlier incursions into the sport by nations like Qatar and the UAE.Saudi Arabia’s entry into football has been pushed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is led by MBS. The PIF purchased an 80% ownership in Newcastle United FC in 2021, making the historically significant but frequently underwhelming club a dominant force in the Premier League and European football. The Ted Boehly-led group that acquired Chelsea FC of London in 2022 included the PIF as well.But over the past several months, Saudi Arabia’s attention has switched to making the Saudi Pro League (SPL), its domestic club competition, a cornerstone in club football.After signing Cristiano Ronaldo to a two-and-a-half year deal worth well over $200 million, the SPL grabbed headlines last year. This summer, he was followed to the league by other superstars including Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Jordan Henderson, and Ruben Neves.Notably, Saudi teams are not constrained by financial fair play regulations that limit a club’s ability to spend, unlike their European counterparts. This enables them to award huge contracts without raising many regulatory issues.Karim Benzema, who was one of Real Madrid’s highest paid players, will reportedly make up to $100 million a year playing in the Saudi League, which is almost $80 million more than what he now makes at Real.
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia’s professional league began in 1976 and is already regarded as one of the best in Asia, the state’s interference has been the primary driver of current activity.In 2022, PIF’s real estate arm, Roshn, took over as the sponsor of SPL. PIF also holds a 75% share in each of the four largest clubs in the nation: Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, and Al Ahli. Even clubs that are not owned by the PIF are either directly affected by the state for financial support or are indirectly owned by the state (such as Al-Qadsiah, which is controlled by the state oil corporation Aramco).This isn’t the first time a state has tried to entice elite footballers to play in their domestic league by giving significant salaries, though.The Chinese Super League (CSL) briefly caused major concern for European football in the 2010s. The mission to create a football culture in China, where the local league has long-standing gambling and corruption problems, was personally driven by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese corporations were encouraged by the government to invest in the sport by purchasing international players for the CSL and even making investments in European teams (like Italian powerhouse Inter Milan).At the time, Carlos Tevez, then 33, was the highest-paid football player in the world, earning an estimated £ 600,000 per week (or about $ 31 million annually). At its height, the CSL was successful in luring top athletes to China, including Oscar, Jackson Martinez, and Alex Teixeira.But CSL’s demise happened just as quickly as it did. The CSL failed to gain the interest of international fans just by signing B- or past-their-prime international talents.China started enforcing restrictions on foreign players in teams in 2017, added a 100% tax on international transfers, and established a stringent pay ceiling. The pay for foreign athletes was occasionally cut to one-tenth of what they had first been promised.Today, many of the prosperous clubs from the heyday of the CSL have either been disbanded or demoted, and the foreign talent has moved to the more profitable Gulf region.Like China, Saudi Arabia has rediscovered its love of football for a variety of reasons, including economic ones. Investing in sports, especially football, as a strategy to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and as a means of soft power, through which it might gain international renown, is a key component of MBS’s flagship Vision 2030 plan.However, this has sparked worries about “sports washing”—a strategy employed by nations or businesses to “wash” the stains of their crimes through the emotive force of sports.Football can help a nation like Saudi Arabia shed its image as a backward and dictatorial regime that oppresses dissenters and members of the LGBTQ+ community, views women as subhumans, and is suspected of committing war crimes in nations like Yemen.Even while some of these issues are scarcely unique to Saudi Arabia, the extent of the government’s participation in football raises significant concerns about its true objectives.The capacity to establish a league that is genuinely competitive, develop financially stable club models, and promote a bottom-up football culture are essential to Saudi Arabia’s footballing objectives. Giving older and more prone to injury players simply enormous salaries is unsustainable, as China’s example very clearly demonstrates.Saudi Arabia, in contrast to China, has been successful in luring a crop of young talent straight early. While China did have several well-known athletes, the SPL has significantly outperformed the CSL in this area. Ronaldo is the largest player to ever play for China. It also failed to draw in as many top skill players as the SPL does.But going forward, it will be crucial to concentrate on creating local clubs and academies in order to guarantee a steady flow of talent and create a football ecosystem that can support itself.

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