The Saudi Sporting Takeover – F1, Boxing Then Golf And Now Is Football Next?

For many years, the Saudi Arabian sporting legacy amounted chiefly to a huge interest in horse racing  and the occasional appearance at the football World Cup Finals.

However, with a burgeoning Saudi Public Investment Fund account at their disposal, the Saudi Arabian regime has started to look at sport as a long-term investment.

And by that, we don’t mean sponsoring a major event, or hosting tournament, we mean using their financial clout to start to dominate certain sports.

This week’s stunning announcement that LIV Golf has agreed to merge with the US PGA and DP World Tours in golf, sent shockwaves through the world of golf.

You’d have got long odds at bet365 Sport of that happening before the day began.

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The potential ramifications and ethical implications of that deal are yet to be fully understood.

But it is not just golf which is seeing something of a Saudi takeover. The state is using its oil trillions to invest in a massive selection of sports around the world.

And it may just be the case that alongside these sports, football may well be near the top of the Saudi’s wishlist.

How Invested Are Saudi Arabia Within Sport?

Let’s take a look now at some of the ways in which Saudi Arabia, through very wealthy individuals or as a state through its public investment fund, are involved in professional sport.

  • Host of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
  • Sponsor of Aston Martin and McLaren F1 teams
  • Home of the 3×3 Basketball World Championship
  • Hosts WWE events with a new deal guaranteeing two major tournaments per year in the country,
  • Host of the Race of Champions in Motor Sport
  • Dakar Rally Host from 2020
  • Diriyah ePrix host
  • Host of the richest horse race in the world, the Saudi Cup
  • Funding the LIV Golf tour and its subsequent merger with the US PGA and DP World Tours.
  • Host of a number of major boxing events, such as Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr 2 and Joshua v Usyk earlier this year.
  • Agreed to host both the Spanish Super Cup and Italian Super Cup games in the country from 2019 and 2018 respectively.
  • Bid to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2026
  • Only remaining bidder for the 2027 Asian Cup
  • Planning to be part of a tripartite bid with Greece and Egypt for the 2030 FIFA World Cup
  • Significant investment in Saudi Arabian Golf, such as the Aramco Team Series, PIF Saudi International (which I now part of the Asian Golf Tour) and the Aramco Saudi Ladies International.
  • Sponsor through Aramco of the Indian Premier League cricket’s most exclusive awards.
  • Significant investments in esports, including hosting the Gamers8 Festival, the largest esports festival in history, as well as buying $3 billion worth of stock including US publishers such as Activision and EA Sports.
  • Host of Tennis Diriyah Cup
  • Host of the World Weightlifting Champioinship
  • Host of the Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters through to 2030.
  • Host of annual NEOM Beach Games tournament
  • Host of the Asia Winter Games in 2029
  • Host of the Asian Game in 2034
  • Host of the World Combat Game in 2023
  • Host of Handball’s IHF Men’s Super Globe
  • Host of Saudi Cycling Tour race

Central to this plan is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” an ambitious, trillion dollar project which aims to move Saudi Arabia from an economic reliance on oil, and to diversify its wealth across a broad spectrum of society, of which sport is one.

Reforms across the country and across a broad spectrum of social, political and religious issue are all part of the plan, as is the building of a $500bn “mega city” called NEOM.

However, Sport is also a very central point to the plan, chiefly as a way to engender political goodwill amongst the citizens of the country and there is no sport more popular in Saudi Arabia than football.

Saudi Arabia’s Football Interests

Saudi Arabia’s huge interest in football is evident in a number of ways.

  • Application to host major football events, such as the Asian Cup and World Cup, as well as attracting some minor domestic cup games to the country (such as the Spanish Super Cup).
  • Purchase or investment in professional clubs all over the world.
  • Promotion and enhancement of its own domestic professional league, including the purchase of several top flight teams and trying to attract top players to join teams in the Saudi league.

It is these latter two points which are of particular interest to us so let’s take a look at them in more detail.

Which Clubs Are Owned By Saudi Arabia’s PIF or Individuals Connected to the PIF?

Outlined below is a list of clubs that are owned, or majority controlled, by Saudi individuals or the PIF.

  • Newcastle United (England)
  • Sheffield United (England)
  • Almeria (Spain)
  • Beerschot FC (Belgium)
  • Al-Hilal Utd (UAE)
  • Chateauroux (France)
  • Kerala United (India)

Furthermore, in a bid to bolster its standing in the world game, the PIF recently purchased no less than four top division teams in the Saudi League including Al Nassr, who recently signed Cristiano Ronaldo on a $200m per year contract, and Al Ittihad, who announced the $100m a year signing of former Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema.

This is where thing get very interesting as it now seems as if the previously insular Saudi league, I now opening up to buying not just foreign players, but some of the greatest players in the game over the last couple of decades or so.

The list of quality foreign players now earning a living in the Saudi Arabian League is increasing:

  • Helder Costa (Al-Ittihad)
  • Ever Banega (Al-Shabab)
  • Luciano Vietto (Al-Hilal)
  • Luiz Gustavo (Al-Nassr)
  • Bruno Henrique (Al-Ittihad)
  • Anderson Talisca (Al-Nasr)
  • Felipe Caicedo (Abha)
  • Ahmed Hegazi (Al-Ittihad)
  • Mousa Marega (Al-Hilal)
  • Odion Ighalo (Al-Hilal)
  • Grzegorz Krychowiak (Al-Shabab)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo (Al-Nassr)
  • Vladimir Stojkovic (Al-Fahya)
  • Robin Quaison (Al-Ettifaq)
  • Karim Benzema (Al-Ittihad)

However, the influx could only be said to be beginning as over the course of the summer, a number of big name players have been linked with the huge riches on offer in the Saudi Pro League.

That includes the following players:

  • Aymeric Laporte
  • N’Golo Kante
  • Ilkay Gundogan
  • Sergio Busquets
  • Jordi Alba
  • Marco Verratti
  • Hugo Lloris
  • Roberto Firmino
  • Luka Modric
  • Sergio Ramos
  • Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang
  • Wilfred Zaha
  • Iago Aspas
  • Thiago Silva
  • Adama Traore
  • Yerry Mina
  • Alexis Sanchez

Additionally, the Newcastle United owners may seek to bolster Eddie Howe’s squad ahead of their Champion League campaign next season, with the club already being linked with a number of players, including PSG superstar Neymar.

Other targets include James Maddison (Leicester), Kieran Tierney (Arsenal), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Gabriel Veiga (Celta Vigo), Yankuba Minteh (OB Odense), Harvey Barnes (Leicester City), Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid), Perr Schuurs (Torino), Ferran Torres (Barcelona) and Mitchel Frame (Celtic).

Manager Eddie Howe has already said he needs to expand the squad to cope with the additional rigours of Champions League football, which could mean the Geordies are set to spend some more of the PIF cash.

As you can see the Saudi influence across sport spans many and is only growing as part of their 2030 Vision. What that means for sport and football in particular, remains to be seen.

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