The tantalizing prospect of a meeting between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo naturally dominated the preparation for the match between French champions Paris Saint Germain and a Saudi All-Star XI on January 19 in Riyadh.
But this friendly match is another example of the growing influence of the Gulf countries in sport – and it goes far beyond the decision to stage this exhibition match in Saudi Arabia.
Since 2011, PSG has been owned by Qatari investors linked to the country’s royal family and the resulting injection of cash has brought global superstars like Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar to the club.
Ronaldo faced them as part of the Saudi All-Star XI thanks to his decision to sign a two-and-a-half-year contract with Saudi club Al-Nasr that would earn him more than $200 million (121 billion 295 million 570 thousand FCFA ).
One fan even paid $2.6 million (1,576,842,400 FCFA) at auction for a ticket to the exhibition match, underscoring the buying power that is increasingly shifting the influence of world football away from home. Europe and Latin America to the Middle East.
Previously known for acquiring more traditional overseas assets, such as properties and businesses, regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are increasingly interested in the sports industry, which experts see as a “soft power” diplomatic effort mixed with a desire for economic diversification.
PSG is not the only major European club directly or indirectly controlled by Gulf countries.
The first major team to be bought was Manchester City in 2008. The English Premier League side was acquired by billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Emirati monarchy.
In recent years, the list has grown with the most controversial deal – the acquisition of another English Premier League club, Newcastle United, by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
The operation sparked controversy in the UK, which centered on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Western intelligence agencies believe the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing – an allegation he has strongly denied.
The takeover was only authorized when there were “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi state would not control the club.
In addition to taking stakes in teams, the Gulf countries have also hosted important matches and signed huge sponsorship deals.
Saudi Arabia has invested in promoting special editions of European football matches, such as the Italian and Spanish Super Cups, both of which were played in Riyadh.
The UAE’s national airline, Emirates, has struck multi-million dollar sponsorship deals with giants Real Madrid and AC Milan.
Major sporting events
Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 Men’s World Cup is the most visible example of the Gulf countries’ willingness to host major sporting events, but it is not the only one. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain will all host Formula 1 Grands Prix in the 2023 season.
Qatar has hosted world championships in sports as varied as swimming, athletics and gymnastics.
Saudi Arabia has also hosted several high-profile boxing matches and WWE wrestling events. There have even been rumors (heavily disputed) that the wrestling sports entertainment brand may be sold to a Saudi owner.
The Olympic Holy Grail
Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup – which many believe was successful – should make hosting other major sporting events in the Gulf more likely.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering a joint bid with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup and sports insiders believe the Qatari capital Doha is ready to bid for the Olympics and Paralympics summer of 2036.
The city has already been a candidate twice, but the excellent infrastructure and transport links showcased at last year’s World Cup may well give the Qataris a new trump card.
And don’t forget the Winter Olympics: last October, Saudi Arabia won the right to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games, which will be held in the $500 billion new city of Neom. (303 billion 238 billion 920 million FCFA) equipped with a ski resort in the middle of the desert and whose completion is scheduled for 2026.
The huge oil and gas industries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have given them the financial muscle to compete at the highest level of global sports administration, but it has not been without generate criticism.
For example, Qatar has come under heavy criticism ahead of the 2022 World Cup due to its human rights record, including on labor rights and LGBT rights. .
The country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, responded by saying he found the scrutiny his country was subjected to disproportionate: “Since we won the honor of hosting the World Cup, the Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced.”
But if the criticisms can continue, the huge growth of Gulf countries playing a role in global sport looks set to continue.