July 2023

Why Saudi Arabia is Changing The Landscape and investing in football with its Massive PIF

image:, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabia may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of world football, but the desert kingdom is making waves in the beautiful game

Football is one of the most popular sport in the world, with billions of fans and players across the globe. But in recent years, one country has been making headlines for its ambitious and unprecedented efforts to transform its domestic league into a global powerhouse: Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, which has the world's largest oil reserves and one of the richest sovereign wealth funds, has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars to attract some of the biggest names in football to its Saudi Professional League (SPL).

In the past year alone, it has signed legendary players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and N'Golo Kante, as well as top managers like Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. But why is Saudi Arabia investing so much in football? And what are the implications for the sport and the region?

A strategic vision

Saudi Arabia's football spending spree is part of a broader vision to diversify its economy and enhance its international reputation. The kingdom, which is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has launched a series of reforms and initiatives under the banner of Vision 2030, a plan to reduce its dependence on oil and develop new sectors such as tourism, entertainment and sports. Football is seen as a key tool to achieve these goals, as it can boost the country's soft power, attract foreign investment and visitors, and create jobs and opportunities for its young population. According to the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the process of privatising four major clubs in the SPL aims to "create an appealing investment environment; improve the governance of the clubs in order for them to become more professional and financially sustainable; and boost their competitiveness by upgrading their infrastructure". Saudi Arabia also hopes to leverage its football assets to host major international tournaments in the future, such as the World Cup or the Olympics. The kingdom has already hosted several events, such as the Spanish Super Cup, the Italian Super Cup and the Asian Champions League final, as well as friendly matches involving teams like Brazil, Argentina and Germany.

A global impact

Saudi Arabia's football investments have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. The arrival of superstar players and managers has generated huge media attention and fan interest, both inside and outside the country. The SPL has seen a surge in viewership and sponsorship deals, as well as an increase in quality and competitiveness. The league is now ranked 12th in the world by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), ahead of leagues such as France's Ligue 1 and Portugal's Primeira Liga. However, not everyone is happy with Saudi Arabia's football ambitions. Some critics have accused the kingdom of using football as a tool to whitewash its human rights record and its involvement in the war in Yemen. They have also questioned the sustainability and fairness of its spending, which could distort the balance of power in the sport and create a new form of financial doping.

In Europe, some clubs and leagues have expressed their concerns about the potential impact of Saudi Arabia’s football investments on their own revenues and competitiveness. They have also clashed with the kingdom over issues such as piracy, broadcasting rights and takeover bids. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s attempt to buy English club Newcastle United was blocked by the Premier League last year, amid allegations of illegal streaming of matches by a Saudi-based network .

A game changer

Saudi Arabia’s football investments are not the first of their kind in the world. In the past, countries such as China, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have also spent lavishly to develop their domestic leagues and attract foreign talent. However, Saudi Arabia’s approach is different in terms of its scale, speed and strategy.

Saudi Arabia has been spending more than any other country on football transfers, breaking several records along the way. It has also been targeting some of the most famous and influential players and managers in the sport, who can bring not only their skills but also their fans and followers to the SPL. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been using its sovereign wealth fund and state-owned oil giant to take over and privatise its clubs, creating a new model of ownership and governance that could set a precedent for others to follow.

Saudi Arabia’s football investments are changing the landscape of world football, both on and off the pitch. They are creating new opportunities and challenges for the sport, as well as for the region and the world. Whether they will succeed or fail remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: they cannot be ignored.


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