Saudi Arabia’s ‘sportswashing’ strategy

There is a widely held belief that the influx of athletes, along with their luxury brands and glamorous lifestyles, will transform Saudi Arabia, turning it into a more open, tolerant society.

Soccer. Credit: Jorono/Pixabay.
Soccer. Credit: Jorono/Pixabay.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

Ask people to name one fact about Saudi Arabia, and you’ll probably get an answer referencing the kingdom’s colossal oil wealth. Or that women living there have to run all their decisions about key aspects of their lives—marriage, divorce, obtaining a passport—by a male guardian before they are permitted to do anything. Or simply that the heat in the kingdom is particularly brutal, but a cold beer to cool you down is verboten nonetheless.

What you are unlikely to get is an answer that identifies Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse in global sports. But that is exactly how the kingdom’s rulers now wish their country to be perceived, which is why they have pumped billions of dollars into transforming Saudi Arabia as a destination for the best athletes in a range of sports, from golf to soccer, from cricket to basketball, in the expectation that the crowds will follow.

Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the first wealthy Gulf Arab nation to try and reinvent its reputation through sports. Its neighbor Qatar—the world’s richest country on a per capita basis—has sunk a fortune into several sports, especially soccer. It hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup despite a series of scandals—from bribing leading international soccer officials to the abysmal working conditions, even deaths, faced by the migrant laborers who built the stadiums for the competition. But having seen how little pushback the Qataris faced when most other countries would have seen their hosting plans sunk on the back of such outrages, the Saudis can hardly be blamed for trying the same strategy.

The Saudi campaign hasn’t exactly been subtle, which has ruffled the feathers of other sports leagues elsewhere in the world. For the last two years, the world of golf has been turned upside down by an internecine battle between the long-established, U.S.-based PGA and the upstart Saudi professional league, LIV Golf, which is financed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. That fight came to a resolution in June, when LIV Golf and the PGA merged, leading PGA commissioner Jay Monahan to gush that “this is a historic day for the game we all know and love.”

Historic or otherwise, it was an important victory for Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, better known by his initials “MBS,” in his bid to diversify the Saudi economy away from its oil dependency by 2030. Other sports are now firmly in the Saudi eyeline. Thanks to a decision by the NBA in December 2022 to enable sovereign wealth funds, pensions and endowments to acquire minority stakes in its teams, rumors are flying of a Saudi takeover of one of American basketball’s illustrious franchises. Also under consideration is the MLB, which relaxed baseball’s ownership rules in 2019, and its distant cousin cricket, which is wildly popular on the Indian subcontinent and among the large Asian diaspora that resides in the Gulf states.

But it is in soccer, the world’s most popular sport, that the Saudis have made their most sustained efforts. Headlines abounded this year when the Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo departed England’s legendary Manchester United for a $200 million contract with the Saudi club Al Nassr, which, it’s safe to say, most soccer fans hadn’t even heard of until Ronaldo appended his signature.

Other top players have followed Ronaldo’s example, including the Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema. The Saudis have also purchased Newcastle United, a normally ailing side in England’s highly regarded Premier League (EPL), which has seen its on-field performance improve along with its balance sheet as a result.

True, not everything has gone the Saudis way. While Ronaldo’s main rival for the title of “world’s greatest soccer player,” Lionel Messi, is quite happy to accept Saudi sponsorship, he eschewed a move to the country, understandably preferring to take his Spanish-speaking family to Miami instead, where he now plays for Inter Miami in Major League Soccer (MLS). A separate bid for the French wunderkind Kylian Mbappé—an eye-watering record offer of $332 million just for his signature—similarly went south. Still, the Saudis can be confident that there is enough talent out there that wants to play in the new Saudi Pro League (SPL), as the continuing barbs from the leaders of more well-known soccer leagues perhaps suggest. Last week, for example, Joan Laporta, the president of Messi’s former club Barcelona, sniffed in a CNN interview that no player could want to move to Saudi Arabia for “sporting reasons,” and he is probably right. The Saudis, however, are banking on the prospect that money matters more than prestige.

There is a widely held belief that the influx of athletes, along with their luxury brands and glamorous lifestyles, will transform Saudi Arabia, turning it into a more open, tolerant society. Certainly, sports business executives are eager for you to believe that, but there’s no basis for it. Sports have always had an in-built indecency (remember how the 1972 Munich Olympics carried merrily on even after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists?), and the whopping salaries being dangled before the world’s athletes, together with the expansion of advertising and sponsorship opportunities, mean that the Saudis can have their proverbial cake and eat it. A country that executes 81 men in the space of 24 hours, as Saudi Arabia did in March 2022, some of them for junk offenses such as “witchcraft,” isn’t going to turn into Sweden overnight just because Ronaldo is playfully juggling a ball while wielding a can of Diet Pepsi.

When you consider Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position, and especially the prospect, once more being hinted at by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration of a final peace deal with Israel, you obtain a greater understanding of its sporting ambitions. Sport is critical to normalizing a country’s image because it allows the spectator to imagine that a foreign country—particularly a foreign country governed by an Islamist theocracy with an appalling record on human rights—is just like home, pretty much.

In that light, the sports leagues emerging in Saudi Arabia are ideal for providing a veneer of openness while leaving the kingdom’s domestic regime largely unaltered. This is what is known as “sportswashing,” an activity that isn’t itself a sport, but something for which the Saudis have illustrated an uncommon aptitude.

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