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HomeAnonymous‘It’s not a fad’: the truth behind Saudi Arabia’s dizzying…

‘It’s not a fad’: the truth behind Saudi Arabia’s dizzying…


The scope of Saudi Arabian ambition in global sport is so broad as to be dizzying, but to get a sense of how it works you can look at the history of one of the country’s first investments, in the antics of professional wrestling.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia brought WWE to Riyadh. Held at the Green Halls Stadium and billed simply as a “live event”, the debut wasn’t televised and it aped wrestling contests previously staged in the United Arab Emirates. Fighters such as Roman Reigns, Dolph Ziggler and John Cena contested six bouts in front of a delirious, all-male crowd. “Everyone is truly proud that we’ve visited their city,” said Cena, posing for selfies with dignitaries wearing traditional thawbs. A placard in the crowd read: “I’ve WWEaited for this my whole life!”

Four years later WWE agreed a 10-year “strategic partnership” with the Saudi ministry of sport. Instead of just generic nights, Riyadh was to have a bespoke event, Crown Jewel, its logo the emerald green of the Saudi flag. According to the website Wrestlenomics, WWE benefited to the tune of $50m (£39m ) a show.

In the US, a backlash followed. Saudi law prevented female wrestlers from participating at the first event, provoking criticism that was rebuffed by wrestling bosses. “You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things,” said the WWE executive Triple H. More protest followed the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Cena pulled out of the Riyadh event that year and has not returned to the country. The Undertaker was booed in the US simply for saying “Crown Jewel”.

In 2019, however, WWE expanded its deal with Saudi. Some of the competition’s more lucrative pay-per-view events were brought to the kingdom. The list of performers was extended, to include Tyson Fury – who fought in the Crown Jewel – and the celebrity wrestler Logan Paul. Wrestlers performed community outreach in Riyadh, discussing bullying prevention with children from a school whose alumni include the Saudi sports minister. A bout between female wrestlers was also finally held; WWE hailed the event as a marker of progress in the country.

Spectators at LIV Golf in Jeddah in October 2022
Causing disruption in the golf world – LIV Golf, which visited Jeddah in October – has attracted some of the world’s best players. Photograph: Joe Scarnici/LIV Golf/Getty Images

There were some unusual incidents, however. In 2019, a plane containing 175 WWE wrestlers and staff was mysteriously unable to leave Riyadh. WWE blamed a mechanical issue for the six-hour delay but legal filings, submitted during a class action concerning WWE’s financial relationship with Saudi Arabia, suggested the plane had been held by Saudi authorities as part of a dispute over the payment of fees. In 2022, a Crown Jewel press conference was disrupted by a group of men chanting: “MBS! MBS!” – the acronym by which Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, is known. This year, WWE sources were forced to deny reports the company had been the subject of a multibillion‑dollar takeover bid from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Dave Meltzer is the editor and publisher of the influential Wrestling Observer Newsletter and a longstanding critic of WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. “It was giant money for two shows a year,” he says of the deal. “In return, WWE helped promote Saudi Arabia on its broadcasts, not just the events themselves but all of its television shows. After the murder of Khashoggi they toned it down for a couple of shows. Now it’s back to being very hard promotion of how wonderful the place is, how progressive they are becoming. I don’t think people expect high moral standards from pro wrestling to begin with. [But] as time has gone by … any negativity, while still there, has dissipated.”

As Saudi Arabia rapidly increases its sporting portfolio, details will vary but certain themes remain consistent: engagement followed by investment, disruption accompanied by controversy and, at the end of it all, increasing Saudi influence. For wrestling, you can read golf and football. Or tennis, or cricket, or boxing, or motor sport (pretty much any type of motor sport), horse racing or combat sports, water sports or beach sports, or urban sports, or even winter sports, and also chess.

This year Saudi’s sporting ambitions have kicked into overdrive and there are still several months to go. The Saudi Pro League season starts this weekend; Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, Jordan Henderson et al. The US Department of Justice may be running an anti-trust investigation into golf’s proposed mega-merger, but the PIF-funded LIV Golf rolls on, loaning players to Asian Tour events and launching its own fantasy game. In September, the World Weightlifting Championships come to Riyadh, closely followed in October by the revived World Combat Games and a stage of the Global Champions Tour in equestrianism.

Fans watch fireworks at Al-Ittihad’s stadium in Jeddah during a ceremony to unveil former Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, on 8 June 2023
Thousands of fans flocked to Al-Ittihad’s stadium in Jeddah to see the club unveil new signing Karim Benzema. Photograph: Haitham El-Tabei/AFP/Getty Images

Fury will fight in the city, in an unofficial contest against Francis Ngannou, from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In November the eastern city of Dammam will host handball’s equivalent of the Club World Cup, the Super Globe. In December, Fifa’s actual Club World Cup comes to Jeddah, at the same time as the city is set to host Saudi Arabia’s first ATP tennis event, the Next Gen finals.

In the mountains in the north‑west, meanwhile, work continues on building the region of Trojena. It is to be the location for the 2029 Asian Winter Games, an event Saudi Arabia saved from probable extinction. Trojena is one of four regions that will form the giant giga-project of Neom and its planned features include “a folding village” of luxury residences and a 36km network of ski slopes. The slopes are to be built on a mountain, Jabal al-Lawz, which the literature describes as “cooler on average than the rest of the kingdom”. With an average winter minimum of 3C, however, a team of “snowmaking technicians” have been hired to make a flaky dream reality.

Compared with Trojena, a test event in Rotterdam next month for the E1 Series seems relatively pedestrian. The world’s first electric raceboat championship, E1 seeks to capture the glamour of motor racing on water, at “iconic cities around the world”. It was experiencing a lengthy gestation until last year, when PIF took a seat on the board. Now, the first official race is set for Jeddah in “early 2024”. It is expected E1 will form part of an attempt to make Saudi Arabia a destination for the yachting class. The governor of PIF, Yasir al-Rumayyan, said the fund’s involvement would also “help drive the development of innovative sustainable technology, which in turn positions Saudi as an enabler in the industries of the future”.

Rumayyan is 53, was educated in Saudi Arabia and made his name working in the country’s banking sector. In 2015 he was summoned for a meeting with Bin Salman, where he was asked to run the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which has approximately $600bn in assets under management. “I didn’t know him at all ,” Rumayyan said in an interview with Bloomberg. “I thought it was going to be an interview but it was like: ‘Here’s what I want you to do.’”

It turned out that a lot of what Bin Salman wanted Rumayyan to do involved sport. PIF has been a vehicle for many of the investments Saudi Arabia has made in the sector and Rumayyan has often fronted them. He is the chairman of Newcastle, giving end‑of‑season addresses to the fans and leading the club’s delegation at the Carabao Cup final at Wembley. He is set to become chair of the body comprising the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV. He is the closest thing to the face of Saudi’s sporting ambitions and, as with electric motorboating, his public pronouncements tend to shed some light on the country’s aims.

That’s not to say that any such light is blinding. During recent hearings at the US Senate into events by which LIV went from insurgent competitor to incumbent stakeholder in golf, the committee on homeland security and governmental affairs made the following observation: “While PIF’s recent growth includes significant investment in the United States, the exact scope of those investments and whether they play a role in any larger Saudi Arabian influence campaign remains largely unknown.” (When invited to give testimony before the Senate committee, Rumayyan demurred, citing “scheduling conflicts”).

Out of 64 sovereign wealth funds, PIF was ranked 56th for transparency by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington in 2021 and it is impossible to get a full picture of its holdings. Neither is it Saudi’s only funding vehicle. Last weekend PIF announced it would be funnelling sporting activity through a new company, SRJ Sporting Investments, which would “invest in acquiring and creating new sports events IP [intellectual property], commercial rights of popular and prominent sports competitions and hosting major global events in Saudi Arabia”.

Another PIF subdivision, Sanabil, specialises in investing in venture capital and private equity funds. Again Rumayyan is the chairman, and Sanabil holds stakes in businesses which in turn have sporting interests. CVC Partners and Silver Lake, for example, two funds Sanabil is involved in, respectively hold shareholdings in La Liga and Manchester City.

Then there’s Aramco, the state‑owned oil company that reported revenues of $535bn (£421bn) in 2022. Last year Aramco announced a partnership with the International Cricket Council to become title sponsor of every ICC event, including October’s Cricket World Cup. It is also the title sponsor of a new women’s golf tour. It is a global partner of Formula One, has brokered a minor partnership with the Chinese Basketball Association and funds the $10m esports championship Gamers Without Borders. You can guess the name of Aramco’s chair.

Every corner of the Saudi state, it seems, is moving into sport. Even Neom, which will “change the face of living on this planet” (but is largely yet to be built), has $400m in marketing spend to invest in McLaren. Does it all add up? There are many voices who think so. Some come from inside the kingdom, others from outside, including the international executives, many from British sport, who have taken up lucrative but demanding contracts in Saudi Arabia.

Neom McLaren’s René Rast in action during the London E-Prix, the final race of the 2023 Formula E season
In June 2022, McLaren announced a strategic partnership with Neom for the their Extreme E and Formula E teams, here’s René Rast in action for Neom McLaren in the final race of the 2023 Formula E season. Photograph: Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images

“This is a sports strategy that is as comprehensive and more detailed than any other in the world,” says one executive who has been party to the plans, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is not a fad, this is not just some rich man’s whim. This has been planned, it is a real approach to what sport can do to change a nation in relation to health, wellbeing and active participation. It’s a really detailed plan and it’s been based on the best sports strategies in the world. This is a very coordinated approach.”

It can sometimes appear that there are as many strategies as there are investment opportunities. The founding document, however, is Vision 2030. Published in 2016, it is a mission statement that shows a path to “a strong, thriving and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all”, according to Bin Salman in the foreword. Vision 2030 has three pillars, one of which seeks to divest the kingdom’s income from reliance on oil revenues. Underneath the pillars are 13 “realization” programmes, one of which is quality of life. Of that programme’s 10 objectives, the first two are “promoting sports activities in the community” and “achieving excellence in several sports regionally and internationally”.

There is a distinct strategy for promoting grassroots sport. There are national targets for getting the population moving, 20% of whom are classified as obese. In the money directed towards football, there is a discernible link to public health. There has been an explosion in football academies and coaching programmes. After the creation of a women’s football department in the Saudi Arabian Football Federation in 2019, as many as 50,000 girls are thought to play as part of a schools league.

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Football is by far Saudi Arabia’s most popular sport and the argument is commonly made that by seeing newly imported stars up close in the Pro League, children will be inspired to activity. According to those within the Saudi football firmament, foreign signings will also help local professional talent to kick on. There are targets not only to make the Pro League one of the top 10 competitions in the world but to get the men’s national team into Fifa’s top 10 (from 54th). It sounds outlandish but Saudi Arabia has a long history in men’s football, is one of the most successful nations in Asia, and has a fanbase for club and international football that could rival many countries in Europe.

Roberto Firmino celebrates one goal of his hat-trick during Al-Ahli’s 3-1 victory over Al-Hazm in the opening game of the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League.
Roberto Firmino celebrates one goal of his hat-trick during Al-Ahli’s 3-1 victory over Al-Hazm in the opening game of the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League. Photograph: AP

There are strategies for other sports, understood to be as many as 16 in total. Some of these are less globally popular activities that could offer a short-term route to success at the Olympic Games. An expanding interest in beach sports, including beach soccer, and in urban games such as 3x3 basketball is explained by this approach. So, too, the engagement with combat sports, including the formation of a joint Saudi-Japanese group for Vision 2030, as part of which Japan sent four karate champions to the Gulf to help develop Saudi prospects.

Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy and the Saud line has ruled for a century by balancing the priorities of various stakeholders. In a nation where 67% of the population are under 35, a strategy in which sport provides entertainment, stimulus and national pride could be very cost‑effective. Domestic development through sport is something Saudi officials are keen to stress. It is not the only focus, however.

The phrase “sportswashing” describes the practice of nations (or individuals and businesses) rehabilitating bad reputations through sport. Amnesty International has consistently claimed that Saudi’s sporting investments are sportswashing, used to gloss over “mounting repression” under Bin Salman. It cites the criminal sentencing of at least 15 individuals in 2022 over issues of “peaceful expression or association”. In the same year, the personal status law codified certain aspects of the Saudi guardianship system that restrict women’s freedoms. Meanwhile, Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student, remains in prison in Saudi Arabia serving a 27-year sentence after being found guilty of terrorism offences when she posted tweets in support of women’s rights.

Human rights activists protest at a hotel in The Hague where Saudi Arabia was marking its statehood day with a reception in September
Human rights activists protest at a hotel in The Hague where Saudi Arabia was marking its statehood day with a reception in September. Photograph: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

According to Joseph Nye, a Harvard academic and a former official in the Clinton administration, using sport to distract from human rights offences can be effective. “If you are Saudi, trying to draw attention away from the murder of Khashoggi, then … a new golf tour can help,” he says. But sport can accomplish other political aims. Nye coined the term “soft power”, which he describes as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment”. Sport, Nye says, is an effective soft-power tool because it “often creates a favourable environment and draws attention”. It may not always work, he says – “think of British football fans in Europe … but it usually does”.

Using sport less as a distraction and more a form of persuasion is what many people who have their eyes on the Saudi sporting project believe to be its driving force.

“Sport, with the massive emotional component attached to it, and extensive media coverage, can benefit investment in other sectors of the economy,” says Andrea Sartori, the CEO of Ace Advisory and a sports consultant who, among other things, helped develop Qatar’s sporting strategy. “In my opinion it is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia, at a relatively low cost, to quickly reposition the country on the international market. They are trying to push for the development of the tourism industry, an industry from which they can relatively easily diversify or adapt to new industries away from oil and gas. To be perfectly honest, I think it’s a very smart strategy.”

By Saudi Arabia associating itself with the glamour, drama and uplifting human achievements of sport, and when allied to a development in tourist infrastructure – not just Trojena and Neom but a “tourism megaproject” in the Red Sea and the “entertainment city” of Qiddiya – change can move quickly. Trojena is targeting 700,000 tourists a year by 2030.

“You shouldn’t just look at the amounts of money invested, you should also look at the speed with which people’s opinions change,” says Sartori. “In the next four or five years they will change our mindset and perception of the country – something others have taken decades to achieve.”

Recent research by the Guardian estimated the Saudis had spent $6bn on sports-related projects since early 2021. Last year PIF made a $30bn investment in the infrastructure arm of the private equity group Blackstone (Rumayyan announced the deal and Blackstone’s global head of tactical opportunities is David Blitzer, the co-owner of Crystal Palace).

In the end, says Sartori: “Yes, they will have spent maybe $20bn, $30bn [on sport]. But what is that in the budget of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia? It is nothing. It is a marketing budget.”

With goals domestic, international and regional (Saudi coming late to a form of development that has been embraced by Qatar and the UAE), the kingdom’s sporting strategy could be transformative. It is also possible that it wilts under the weight of its ambitions, or that events get in the way.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the King’s Cup final match between Al-Hilal and Al-Wehda in May 2023
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen here at May’s King’s Cup final between Al-Hilal and Al-Wehda, has been behind Saudi expansion in sport. Photograph: Saudi Press Agency/Reuters

“There is a risk,” says Sartori, “and that is if the oil price goes down. Then the mood of the head of state could change and the strategy could become less aggressive, more conservative. I say this because I saw it happen in Qatar 10 years ago. The enthusiasm towards sport can wane because they have bigger things to worry about.”

Terrence Burns is a leading sports consultant who has worked on a number of successful Olympic bids from Beijing to Los Angeles. Saudi Arabia, as is to be expected, has been linked with hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, perhaps from as early as 2030. Burns believes it is following what western countries have done.

“Places like Saudi Arabia didn’t have the means or ability 20 years ago to put this much money into sport,” he says. “They were building their economies. Now they do have the money, and sport is a great investment if done right. Investment in events and leagues do two things; they attract tourism and they create jobs. Alongside that comes the commercial infrastructure that supports sport which is good for the country.”

Such investment requires consistent reinforcement, Burns argues, if its effects are to continue long term. And just as money has flowed into sport over the past five years, it could equally stop doing so. “To me it’s pretty simple: as soon as these investments don’t give the return that’s expected, they’ll stop making them,” he says. “It’s not some nefarious strategy from within the dark recesses of people’s minds; it’s business. The moment they don’t get a return on investment, that’s when it stops.”

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