Saudi Arabia’s Sportswashing Siege

Saudi Arabia has been making headlines in the sports world, using its endless funds to buy its way into power.

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By Ashley La

The terms “Saudi Arabia” and “sportswashing” are seemingly synonymous these days. The oil-backed nation is attempting to move into the ever-growing industry, one that will have a value of over $623 billion by 2027. This value can be seen in the development of increasingly lucrative sponsorship deals, growth of live streaming platforms, and increased participation in sports. So far, Saudi Arabia has been quite successful, signing soccer superstars, merging with the PGA Tour, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor F1 cars. And, by the looks of it, the Saudis aren’t stopping anytime soon, as the nation’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has a current value of over $770 billion.

Their most recent act of sportswashing was their massive soccer signings this past year. Legends including Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Karim Benzema, and N’Golo Kanté all made the switch from Europe to the Middle East, signaling a change in the geography of the soccer world. In addition to signing big names, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in all tiers of soccer in order to improve the system as a whole. This investment can be seen by the massive salaries even in the third tier, with some reports stating that players are paid three to four thousand dollars a week, along with being provided a car and a house.

The country’s involvement in soccer goes back further than this year, though. Back in October 2021, Saudi Arabia’s PIF bought Newcastle United for over $400 million, its first major move in Europe. Because of this, Newcastle, a once-struggling club with a rich history, has skyrocketed to the top end of the Premier League, finishing fourth last season and qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.

In professional golfing, the Saudis made their mark by creating LIV Golf, a golf league meant to rival the PGA Tour. LIV Golf was founded in 2019 but only started turning heads in the past two years, when it began spending enormous sums of money on golf players. To put the amount of money LIV Golf has into perspective, its current biggest contract is with three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, in the region of $210 million—a number that easily surpasses any potential earnings on the PGA Tour. Furthermore, each LIV Golf event has a purse of around $25 million, far more than the ones on the PGA Tour.

The Arab country has not explicitly stated the motivation behind all of this, but there are likely two main motivators. The first is to diversify its oil-centric economy. Currently, most of the nation’s assets are in oil, which has allowed it to grow and maintain its wealthy PIF. With assets in the sports world in the form of clubs and leagues, the economy will become much stronger. The second—and more likely—motivator is the government’s desire to clear its public image, as Saudi Arabia has come under fire for many questionable human rights practices. The country is known for having public mass executions, limiting free speech and women’s rights, murdering migrants, and committing even more horrific crimes. That being said, the oil nation is trying to deflect the world’s attention onto their sports investments, in hopes that their unjust actions will fade from the spotlight.

All in all, the Saudis have gained what they wanted—an improved image while controlling the sports world. They’ve grown soccer to a point where there is a good chance their league will become a top-five league in the coming years. The governor of the PIF, Yasir al-Rumayyan, is now in charge of the board of LIV and the PGA, giving the Saudis the upper hand. So, as the years tick on, keep an eye on Saudi Arabia and its expansion into the sports world.