Football, F1, golf, boxing: are the Saudis taking over?

Huge salaries are drawing players to Saudi as kingdom seeks ‘reputational gains’

Cristiano Ronaldo shakes hands with President of Al Nassr Football Club, Musalli Al-Muammar in January
Cristiano Ronaldo was offered double his salary to join Riyadh club Al Nassr last year
(Image credit: AL Nassr Club of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Cristiano Ronaldo was first to go, lured to Riyadh club Al Nassr last December by an offer that doubled his salary, said Jack Johnson on TalkSport. Then in early June came news that current Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema will join him in the Saudi Pro League next season and play for Jeddah-based Al Ittihad.

A few days later, “the first Premier League star signed up”, as Al Ittihad also agreed terms with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté. Several more Premier League players have since followed suit, including Rúben Neves of Wolves and Édouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea. With stars of the calibre of Mohamed Salah and Bernardo Silva also linked to moves to the kingdom, stand by for more shock announcements to be made before the summer transfer window closes.

Why now?

There is no great mystery as to why so many players are upping sticks to play in Saudi Arabia, said Will Unwin in The Guardian. The riches they’re being offered dwarf even their hefty European salaries. Ronaldo’s deal at Al Nassr is worth a reported £173m a year – or £357 a minute; Benzema is set to earn a similar amount; Kanté will make £86m a year – six times what he earned at Chelsea; Neves is to earn a reported £300,000 a week at Al Hilal.

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The more intriguing question is why this is suddenly happening now, and the answer is to be found in a deal that the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) struck in early June with four of the country’s leading clubs. The deal gave PIF a 75% stake in each club, at a stroke transforming them from relatively modest operations into four of the richest clubs on the planet.

It’s all part of a well-established pattern we’ve been witnessing in other sports, said Paul MacInnes in The Observer. With estimated reserves of £500bn, the PIF – which is ultimately controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – can afford to spend an almost unlimited amount buying up global sporting assets. And that’s just what it has been doing, propelled, it would seem, by a desire to compete with other Gulf states such as Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Heavy investment in boxing means the sport “increasingly revolves around Jeddah and Riyadh rather than Madison Square Garden and Wembley”. The PIF also has a ten-year deal in place to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix each season, and already wants to expand that to two.

And more recently, the kingdom has turned its attention to golf, provoking a civil war within the sport by paying players such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson hundreds of millions of dollars to join its rebel LIV tour. A truce was finally brokered in early June, with the “bombshell” announcement that golf’s two pre-existing tours – the PGA and the Europe-based DP World Tour – had agreed to merge with LIV, creating a single global tour. Although the deal was presented as an equal partnership, most observers believe it means that Saudi Arabia has “effectively bought golf”.

Reputational gains

Now it wants to do the same with football, said Jawad Iqbal in The Spectator. Not content with owning Newcastle (bought for £350m in 2021), Saudi Arabia now wants to induce the greatest players on the planet to play in “an irrelevant football league”. Somewhere down the line, a financial advantage may emerge, but in the short term the gain is chiefly reputational: by showing the world that it’s the sort of place where “Ronaldo and co are happy to play football”, the kingdom wants to boost its international standing and distract attention from its “abysmal human rights record”. How depressing that so many big names are showing “themselves to be shameless mercenaries” by colluding with this “cynical strategy”.

The prospect of football “going the way of golf” is indeed “terrifying”, said Oliver Kay on The Athletic. Yet we in England are hardly in a place to indulge in too much “handwringing”. The growth of the Premier League was “underpinned by a total disregard for the source of inward investment and for the impact on the wider game”. At the core of the League’s expansion has been its ability to offer “mind-boggling contracts”, which clubs in other countries have been powerless to resist. And this has bled “other leagues of their best talent”.

Now that the same is being done to England, it is natural that we don’t like it – but “any complaints about the Saudi Pro League should be tempered by an awareness of the danger of sounding hypocritical”.

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