The Saudis adapt Qatar. Only faster, bigger and more aggressive, made possible by almost infinite financial opportunities that make even Qatar’s wealth look ridiculously small. “They’re trying to catch up in record time,” explains a European manager who has worked as a consultant in the Gulf region for a long time.
Most recently, the headline caused a sensation, according to which the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Muhammed bin Salman tried to win over Greece and Egypt as a vehicle for awarding the 2030 Football World Cup. The crown prince of the Saudi royal family, which is estimated to be worth 1.2 trillion euros, has therefore offered the countries the construction of new stadiums and the full assumption of the costs of the tournament. In return, three quarters of all games would then be played in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” dates from 2016 and is eight years younger than that of the Emir of Qatar. So hosting the World Cup eight years after the event in Qatar would be more of a math than a coincidence. The Saudis have already made up ground in other areas. The Asian Games will be held in Doha (Qatar) in 2030 and in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) in 2034. And two years later, the balance of power in the Gulf should have been adjusted again in terms of sports. With a win in the big bidding final: Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia want to host the 2036 Summer Olympics.
Muhammad bin Salman, MBS for short, can hardly walk at the moment because of the purchasing power. The state oil company Aramco reported a record profit of 161 billion dollars (151 billion euros) at the end of February. An oil company has never made more money in a year. The dividend for the past quarter, around 19.5 billion dollars (18.3 billion euros), flows mainly into the state coffers because the main shareholder of the Saudi group is Saudi Arabia. There should currently be enough money to invest in major events and stars. Sports is part of his Agenda 2030, a reform project that has absolute priority for the ambitious heir to the throne: he wants to rebuild the Saudi economy, his country should become independent of oil revenues.
Modern vs. Medieval
At the same time, in the country with 36 million inhabitants, which its rulers are always keen to present as a center of modernity, executions are still taking place, thieves have their hands amputated, and their tongues are cut off for perjury. Infidelity is punishable by stoning, and women who experience domestic violence are only allowed to leave their marital home if the male guardian allows it. “To these Arabs I was sent as a stranger, unable to think their thoughts or share their views,” wrote T. E. Lawrence in his 1926 war report The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The assessments and observations of the English officer, who gained worldwide fame as Lawrence of Arabia, are still relevant. Saudi Arabia was and has remained a world of its own that is difficult for outsiders to fathom.
Just as the officer and archaeologist once did, 110 years later the sports world is desperate for a valid interpretation of exactly what Saudi Arabia is planning to do in the coming months after decades of valid standards, customs and tournament traditions were devalued by Saudi billions in investment.
MBS traditionally thinks in gigantic categories. Currently, it can be felt most intensively in the north-western tip of the huge country, where the super city Neom has been emerging for five and a half years – an ultra-modern spot of hyper-futurism that has been pounded out of nowhere in the desert and that degrades every science fiction vision, no matter how weird, to a boring one. The project, planned for the size of Belgium, will cost at least 500 billion euros. It’s like a spaceship landed in the Middle Ages. The latest project is the world’s largest cube in the north of the capital. A consumer-oriented monster called Mukaab, into which twenty times the Empire State Building from New York should fit and from which, among other things, virtual Mars journeys should lift-off. According to Saudi will, it should become a new landmark; like the Eiffel Tower for example. It is not always the builders who decide on the importance of buildings. At sporting events, you get ahead with the attitude that pretty much everything and almost everyone can be bought, possibly further. Where, if not in the field of sporting events, can the Arab Gulf States learn that in the end it’s all just a question of money?
Sport as an advertising medium
Sport plays a major role for the Saudi prince: Shortly after the German record champions Bayern Munich beat Paris St. Germain in the Champions League, a message was posted on the website of “Arab News”, which was the first English-language newspaper in the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia, established in 1975: “Messi visits Saudi Arabia this month”. The Saudi Minister of Tourism is delighted to “welcome our Tourism Ambassador and star Lionel Messi and his family and friends on his second visit this month, where he will visit the finest tourist attractions, socialize with people and have a unique experience.” Maybe Messi will come more often. And stay longer. Al-Hilal, the country’s most popular club from the capital Riyadh, is said to want to sign the Argentine, who still plays for the Parisian club, for the upcoming season. The frequency of reports with which advertising becomes public is increasing. It should also be mentioned that the French capital capital team is owned by long-time rival Qatar!
After a rather patchy season at Manchester United, to put it politely, Cristiano Ronaldo decided to retire from the big stage late last year. He could have gone to Real Madrid again, to Chelsea or maybe even to Munich. With Newcastle United, the Premier League club taken over by the Saudis in 2021 was also up for debate. But the sheikhs preferred to get the five-time world footballer directly into the desert. One of the two formative superstars of this millennium receives 200 million euros per season, but kicks at al-Nasr far from sporting relevance. The other, Lionel Messi, has long served as the country’s official ambassador.
Saudi gigantomania in the sports business
Even if the attempts to buy the rank from the Uefa Champions League with their own Super League failed, unlike in golf so far, the successes on the transfer market for sporting events are considerable. The Spanish Supercup will be played in Riyadh at least until 2029. This year Formula 1 drove the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix for the third time. The country bought the boxing match for the heavyweight world championship between Andy Ruiz jr. and Anthony Joshua, and if so many tennis professionals had not threatened a boycott, the Davis Cup would now also be played in Riyadh. The most recent signing followed in February when the country was awarded the 2027 Asian Football Championship.
Trying to make Wimbledon a real clay court tournament? For those who think this is a mirage, remember that in 2029 the Asian Winter Games will be held in the desert. But what drives the Saudis? Where does the sudden fascination for major sporting events come from after total isolation? An answer lies in the neighborhood. The fact that little Qatar, with its 300,000 native inhabitants, is sticking its nose at the Saudis by awarding the World Cup and other international events as a new sports power player was one of the reasons why the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia lifted the blockade on Qatar in 2017. The fact that this tiny little country was able to push itself to the fore globally through its sports promotion caused a great deal of resentment in Saudi Arabia.
The reference to the unloved neighbor
In any case, the Saudi self-confidence is currently as high as the oil revenues. Recently, the Saudi ambassador to the United States published an opinion piece that countered the accusation that the leadership is concerned with sports washing, with image cultivation: “Saudi sports investments are about us, not how others see us.” There is some truth to that. For Qatar, the heavily wealthy 2022 host, the money pumped into World Cup and PSG is also an investment in its own visibility, which it in turn seeks to protect from powerful neighbors like Saudi Arabia. The kingdom needs something less, even if it hurts the crown prince that he was put in the international sleazy corner after the brutal bone saw murder of his critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Rather, it is about establishing the kingdom as a tourist destination beyond the streams of pilgrims to the holy places of Islam. And unlike other competitors in the Gulf, the Kingdom has one of the largest domestic markets in the region. About 70 percent of the more than 35 million Saudis are under the age of 35. They are grateful that MBS overthrew the arch-conservative Wahhabi religious scholars, who had tied their everyday life into a tight corset of backward modesty, for its reform agenda. And the Crown Prince wants them to be able to enjoy themselves. Only criticizing him is no allowed. Most wouldn’t even think of that. Opening up society with a crowbar is more important to them than frustration with political repression.
And human rights? During the World Cup last year, it became clear to the general public how an authoritarian system in Qatar is dealing with this sensitive issue. But not only the local rulers, but also the grandees of the international sports associations, in Qatar it was the controversial FIFA President Gianni Infantino, made every effort to quickly sweep human rights violations under the carpet. When it comes to sports sponsorship by the Saudis, the political and social grievances in the country are also becoming an increasingly important issue, especially in the West. The director of the organization that exposes extreme human rights abuses, Reprieve, says: “Since 2015, the Saudi Arabian regime has executed more than 1,000 people, including accused children, pro-democracy protesters and innocent drug mules. At the end of February 2023 alone, there were at least 13 executions in Saudi Arabia, including Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a Jordanian father of eight whose case had been raised by UN experts and British MPs. Executions on the eve of the Formula 1 Grand Prix are a brazen display of impunity by the Saudi authorities, who are confident the sport and its trading partners will remain silent.”
In the press conferences of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), all drivers basically gave the impression that they felt reasonably comfortable driving at the Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia, when a question about the rocket hit near the racetrack last year raised the sport-political circumstances. Only one stood up and took stance: Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton: “Nothing to add, the opposite of what was said.” The opposite? “Anyone can interpret,” added the seven-time world champion, before becoming more specific when asked the third time: “I still feel that when sport goes to places with human rights issues like this, sport has a duty to raise awareness and try to make a positive impact. I have the feeling that it has to do more.” The FIA did something recently. It reminded all drivers that political statements, signs and gestures are forbidden during the race and the awards ceremony.
In addition to an economic reorientation, injured neighborly vanity and the desire for global attention, the domestic political situation is probably also driving the pursuit of sport manifested by the Saudi Crown Prince MBS in his “Vision 2030”. There is no formation of public opinion, there is no free press. But MBS knows that young people are dissatisfied with the country’s backwardness and conservatism. In addition to bread, there should also be games. Therefore, the role models in the neighborhood came at just the right time. The Qataris in particular showed with their “Vision 2030” how big tournaments and prestigious competitions can attract attention and boost tourism. Despite all the criticism from Europe, the calculation with the so-called sportswashing worked out well from a global perspective.
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