Saudi Arabia's sportswashing attempts, will the G.O.A.T take the bait?
In an attempt to distract the world from its violations, Saudi Arabia has indulged itself deep into a specific sport known to bring people together and is the most viewed in the world -- football.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has sought to acquire international sporting events to host them. The kingdom has shown persistence in investing billions into the world of sports aimed at whitewashing its human rights violations.
Jamal Khashoggi's death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the war on Yemen were definitely events that caught the international eye's attention. Saudi Arabia is also criticized for establishing secret ties with "Israel".
All part of the 2030 Vision
Saudi Arabia's 2030 Vision lays out targets for diversification and improving competitiveness. The entire vision was originally built around main themes which set out specific key goals that are to be achieved by the year 2030, including reinforcing economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil international trade, and promoting a softer and more secular image of Saudi Arabia.
Formulating a vibrant society is definitely one of the Saudi Vision 2030 goals. This includes urbanism and immense improvements to culture and entertainment, sports, and many more fields.
Special focus has been placed on football with plans to position the Saudi Pro League among the top 10 in the world. Other goals include increasing league revenues from $120 million to more than $1.8 billion annually and raising its market value.
Making its way into Sports
It seems that Saudi Arabia is using sports as a shield to polish its violations. It has indulged itself deep into a specific sport known to bring people together and is the most viewed in the world -- football.
For starters, Saudi Arabia's football team raised eyebrows at the 2022 World Cup, especially following their impressive victory over the tournament winners Argentina, with a score of 2-1.
Other than its attempt to court Greece and Egypt for a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup, Saudi Arabia has recently been highly present in the world of football in specific and in different leagues.
The Newcastle United takeover
Newcastle United was a financially struggling Premier League club known for its lack of reinvestment in its infrastructure and unwillingness to spend on players. Saudi Arabia swooped in to attempt to buy the club, a decision that was met with criticism as people saw right through its motives.
"Ever since this deal was first talked about, we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football," said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK's CEO, in a statement published on the organization's website.
"There should be no place in the Premier League, and English football, for anyone involved in such abhorrent acts," wrote Rodney Dixon QC, legal representative of Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Cengiz had urged the Premier League not to approve the sale.
Nevertheless, it was announced that after 18 months of negotiations, a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased Newcastle United for $409 million, as Saudi Arabia now owns 80% of the Premier League club. The aim was to show Saudi Arabia as the hero who saved the financially struggling football club.
Ironically enough, fans who bashed Saudi Arabia for buying their team now proudly wear the country's white and green colors in Newcastle United's new kits.
Next stop: Serie A?
Saudi Arabia has also shown interest in purchasing the Italian football club, Inter Milan. In December 2021, it was announced that Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) was very close to completing the takeover of Serie A club Inter Milan.
Football transfer journalist Kello Samuel announced that the PIF was to buy the club for over $1.3 billion.
"The Public Investment Fund (PIF) will have 49% shares, Aramco 45% shares and the 5% will be held by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself through one of his companies. The other 1% will be held by small shareholders," said Samuel.
The club is still owned by Suning Holdings Group. The organization has suffered huge losses during the COVID-19 pandemic which has had a huge impact on the operation of the club at the time. Despite winning the Serie A title in 2020-2021, Inter was forced to sell star players like Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi and even had to part ways with manager Antonio Conte.
Saudi Arabia aimed to be seen as a hero once again, saving a struggling Italian football club. This attempt though, did not work out.
When five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United parted ways in the summer of 2021, everyone in the world of football was anticipating the Portuguese's next move.
Ronaldo's shift from the Premier League to La Liga to Serie A to the Premier League again got his fans to wonder about his next destination. Surprisingly enough, Saudi Arabia sought to acquire the Portuguese football giant as a bid came from the Saudi club, Al-Nassr FC.
Shortly after the 38-year-old’s signing with Al-Nassr, the club’s Instagram page gained over 5.3 million new followers. Its official website was inaccessible after exceeding its bandwidth limit due to the sudden surge in traffic, and the hashtag #HalaRonaldo – Hello Ronaldo in Arabic – was trending for days across the Middle East on Twitter.
At a time when Saudi Arabia was being condemned over its attacks on Yemen, the world paused and looked back at Saudi Arabia as a country where one of the greatest footballers resides and plays.
In an attempt to woo international attention, Saudi Arabia, an Islamic conservative country that definitely does not allow unwedded couples to live together as it opposes the country's law, made an exception for Cristiano Ronaldo and his girlfriend to live together, an exception that is not granted to anyone else that we know of.
Real Madrid just recently announced that Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema will leave the Spanish club as a free agent in the close season after 14 trophy-laden years.
Another star player is being reeled into the Saudi Professional League, as the Frenchman received a bid from Saudi club Al-Ittihad.
Saudi Arabia's state-run Al-Ekhbariya television station reported that Al-Ittihad had reached an agreement with Benzema on a two-year contract, with club officials in Madrid to hammer out a "record deal" with the striker.
🚨🇸🇦 Karim Benzema has signed main part of docs to become new Al Ittihad player joining the Saudi league — here we go!— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) June 5, 2023
Understand contract will be valid until 2025 but will also include option for further season.
Karim will say goodbye to Madrid fans then travel to Saudi. pic.twitter.com/OCzwszv2OL
The renowned Argentinian footballer last traveled to Saudi Arabia in May 2022 after he was named the country's Tourism Ambassador. Having Lionel Messi, a player admired by millions, being the country's tourism ambassador is a very smart move. One visit to Saudi Arabia and using the simple hashtag #VisitSaudi makes a huge difference in how the international community views the country.
On another note, Paris Saint-Germain has announced that Messi will leave the club through an official statement. Messi's contract is set to expire on June 30, and it was widely expected that he wouldn't continue at the Parc des Princes - a development that has now been confirmed by the Ligue 1 giants.
Surprise surprise, who wants to bid for the greatest player of all time?
Rumors are afloat that the World Cup winner reportedly has a mind-blowing €400m-a-year offer from Saudi powerhouse Al-Hilal to move to the Saudi Pro League on the table.
Attempting to acquire Lionel Messi, nicknamed the G.O.A.T (greatest [player] of all time), is a clear indicator of revolutionizing the country's football league. Football fans will rush to visit Saudi Arabia for the sake of viewing their idol play.
Will the G.O.A.T take the bait?
Other than that, who will ever remember Saudi Arabia's violations when Lionel Messi plays in their league? A large portion of the world's population consists of football fans who admire the players that Saudi Arabia is acquiring.
The real question lingers, will Lionel Messi take the bait and take part in the sportswashing campaign that Saudi Arabia is launching, under the pretense of its 2030 Vision initiative, or will he look the other way toward other options being extended his way?