At the point when Saudi Bedouin club Al-Hilal supposedly arranged a $1.1 billion bid to sign French soccer hotshot Kylian Mbappé – including $332 million to his club, Paris Saint Germain (PSG), there were doubts.
That is not all, the Saudi team additionally tempted the player with an eye-watering $775 million compensation parcel to the World Cup winner for only one year. Strangely, this move was rammed by pundits as sportswashing.
Mbappé could have expressed No to the proposal in July, but after a month, Neymar Jr. expressed Yes to Al-Hilal, as the Brazil star moved from PSG for an transfer fee of around $98.5 million (€90 million) or more additional items, as indicated by other reports.
In a record-breaking transfer window, Saudi Pro League clubs spent near $1 billion, procuring 94 foreign players from Europe’s major leagues – France’s Ligue 1, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League – as per Deloitte.
Despite the Arab nation’s human rights record issues, Saudi Arabia’s spending spree to turn its domestic soccer league into a star-studded, bona fide competition shows the seriousness of its ambition.
Saudi clubs, a few of which have been taken over by the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), have proactively drawn in probably the greatest names in football.
By attracting some of the world’s greatest stars to the Gulf states, the Saudi Pro League (SPL) is massively driving competitiveness on and off the pitch, though it’s keen to emphasize that these overseas players will help develop, according to a young Saudi talent.
The government-controlled PIF increased the cumulative value of four clubs nearly five times, making them the most valuable in the country, according to estimates.
As the European transfer window came to a close, the four PIF-owned teams have spent nearly $900 million (€835.1 million) on buying elite international players, Transfermarkt data shows. This ranked them in the top 20 clubs in the world by transfer expenditure, alongside soccer giants from England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Al Hilal alone paid more than $378 million (€353 million), more than PSG and Arsenal, making it the second-largest spender this year.
The newly acquired players join five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a two-year contract with Al-Nassr where he will earn a staggering estimated $200 million a year, according to Saudi state-owned media, currently making him the world’s highest paid soccer player.
Now, 21 of the most expensive soccer players in Saudi Arabia by transfer fees – all international stars – play for one of the PIF-owned clubs.
Despite the financial outlay, the SPL is remaining deliberately tight-lipped about the specifics of its financial gamble, with chief operating officer Carlo Nohra saying it was “not in the SPL’s competitive advantage” to report the salaries offered to players and coaches.
The PIF has $777 billion in assets under management, according to its most recent filing, with ambitions to top $1 trillion within a few years. In 2021, it acquired English soccer club Newcastle United, before focusing on investments at home. The club is now also among top spenders on players.
Saudi clubs not owned by the PIF are also splurging on big-ticket players, with former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, 33, offered an eye-watering salary of $870,000 (£700,000) per week, according to multiple reports, in an estimated $15 million (£12 million) transfer from Liverpool to Saudi team Al-Ettifaq.
Saudi Arabia continues in the strides of a few other countries – including China and Qatar for putting away enormous amounts of cash to try to transform themselves into soccer forces to be reckoned with.
It is not yet clear whether Saudi’s turbocharged investment will have an enduring effect or look like something like an expensive rebranding exertion.
The Saudi national team has been to multiple World Cups, and the country’s clubs have won multiple Asian titles. Saudi’s victory over Argentina during last year’s men’s FIFA World Cup was hailed as one of the greatest upsets in tournament history, with the country’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud granting a national public holiday in recognition of the win.
Club games can attract huge crowds in the Middle Eastern nation. For example, Al-Ittihad against Al-Hilal, the match drew crowds of 40, 50, 60,000 people, and these are games that are comparable in size to Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Manchester United vs. Manchester City.
The country is hosting the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup and is also bidding to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
Several media reports also indicated that the Gulf kingdom was considering launching a bid for the 2030 FIFA men’s World Cup alongside Greece and Egypt – although it is reportedly mulling pulling its candidacy.
Meanwhile, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has agreed to a contract that will see the Spanish Super Cup played in Saudi Arabia until 2029, a deal that will earn the Spanish governing body between €35-45 million ($38-48 million) a year.
Saudi Arabia has a very young population: the country’s most recent census revealed 32.2 million people live in the country, nearly 42% of whom are foreign nationals – and 51% of the Saudi population are under the age of 30. Of this populace, Saudi authorities say that over 80% play, attend or follow soccer, the national sport.
The soccer industry generates employment, revenues, export earnings and inward investment.
Meanwhile, Human rights group Amnesty International has revealed that it has documented a rollback in human rights in Saudi Arabia, including an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression and an increased use of counterterrorism and cybercrime laws to silence dissent. Between 2022 and 2023, the organization said it has documented an increase in criminal prosecutions compared to previous years.
In 2022, Amnesty reported the highest number of annual executions in the country in 30 years, with 196 people killed. Projections indicate the kingdom has around 20 years to diversify its economy to ensure it is more resilient.
Earlier this summer, the PIF — which is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – took ownership of four of the country’s strongest soccer clubs: 18-time national champion Al-Hilal, nine-time champions Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr and three-time champion Al-Ahli.
Meanwhile, when the Peterson Institute for International Economics compared the world’s sovereign wealth funds on criteria including governance, transparency and accountability in 2019, the PIF scored well below average on a measure combining these criteria, and ranked in the bottom 10 out of 64 funds, just above Russian Direct Investment Fund.