Cristiano Ronaldo stands prior to the Saudi Pro League week 28 soccer match between Al-Nassr and Al-Shabab at Alawwal Park Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 23, 2023.
Mohammed Saad | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Saudi Arabia are signing some of world soccer’s most high profile players this summer — but why is this happening and does this spending power pose a threat to big European clubs?
In 2023 alone, Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Middle Eastern nation on a free transfer, with Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema turning down another season at Real Madrid to join him in the country.
That is by no means the end of it with as many as four Chelsea players set to leave the Premier League side for the Saudi Pro League, with Sergio Ramos, Bernardo Silva and Heung-Min Son reportedly facing similar offers.
Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol analyses this transfer market trend…
Why are Saudi Arabia spending huge sums on foreign players all of a sudden?
Saudi Arabia is looking to expand its economy through other industries in order to help guarantee its financial future.
The country is reliant on selling money through oil — that is not going to last forever and they need to diversify their economy. They do this via the PIF — the country’s sovereign wealth investment fund.
Sport is one particular area they are looking to grow in the country and that includes their soccer league. They want to build their own leisure and entertainment industry and tap into the massive amount of interest there is among the Saudi Arabian population — of which 70% is under 40 — in football.
Soccer is hugely popular in Saudi Arabia — they were the best supported team at the Qatar World Cup last year let’s not forget and their team beat eventual champions Argentina in the group stages — and they also see it as a way of increasing tourism to the country.
The rulers of Saudi Arabia have seen all this interest and they’ve thought: “instead of other people making money from our population’s interest in sport, let’s make it ourselves and keep the money within our borders.” It wants to put Saudi Arabia on the map and raise its profile.
What else is Saudi Arabia hoping to achieve?
Amnesty International Amnesty has accused Saudi Arabia of embarking on a program of “sportswashing to try to obscure its extremely poor human rights record.”
Human Rights Watch says “Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events to deflect from the country’s poor human rights record.”
In its 2022 World Report Human Rights Watch concluded that some reforms had been announced in Saudi Arabia “but ongoing repression and contempt for basic rights are major barriers to progress.”
A United Nations investigation into the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi said his death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”
As well as being used for sportswashing, investing in soccer can also buy influence and prestige around the world and project soft power.
Saudi Arabia is expected to bid to host the World Cup in 2030 together with Greece and Egypt.
Is it a ‘flash in the pan’ — or a long-term aim?
Parallels are obviously being drawn with China and the birth of the Super League in 2004, when suddenly Brazil star Oscar and West Ham’s Marko Arnautovic moved to the Far East.
What happened in China was their Super League was a direct order from the president. He said that he wanted China to host the World Cup, have a good national team and a domestic league.
But then the ruling Communist Party in China had a change of heart, they didn’t like how this large amount of money was flowing out of China and into Europe and foreigners’ pockets. They decided to end this and loads of different rules were put in place to control how many foreign players you could have in the Chinese Super League.
Like then, Saudi Arabia’s aim is long-term. But Saudi Arabia have more money. And there is the sense they are more serious about it.
So this is the beginning of a process and not something that is going to go away quickly. Sky Sports News has been told that, within the next five years, Saudi Arabia want 100 of the best foreign players playing in its league.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the first to go there, and they tried to get Lionel Messi with a monumental $400 million-a-year offer that he turned down to move to MLS instead. But that has not deterred Saudi Arabian clubs, with Ruben Neves on the verge of joining Al Hilal and four Chelsea players including Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech in talks to switch to the state as well.
So will the Saudi Arabian clubs target Erling Haaland? Or Harry Kane? No player has been ruled out in terms of trying to bring them to the Arabian peninsula
Mohammed Hamdi, an expert in soccer in the Middle East and a former director of Al Jazira FC in Abu Dhabi, told Sky Sports News he believes the country would have no problems attracting top talent.
“They have the infrastructure,” he said. “They have the country. They can host [a World Cup]. We saw already that in Qatar it was an amazing event.
“This is a long-term vision where you can attract TV contracts, media, sponsorship and more visitors to the country.
“It’s not only players at a certain player or basically finalizing their careers. You can see there are young players ready to take the step into the Saudi league.”
Has Saudi Arabia distorted the transfer market forever?
We have seen this summer, for the first time, that with every single transfer you have to mention the Saudi clubs. Players who you think are not able to be bought, such as Heung-Min Son at Tottenham, there is serious interest in them. Spurs have said that Son is not for sale.
Saudi Arabia has the money to sign any player they want — as long as the player wants to move there.
A lot of players at the very peak of their careers will say no — but I think that has changed a little bit with Wolves’ Neves. He is somebody who Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United are interested in, he is only 26 years old, and at the peak of his career, he has decided to go. Obviously a lot of that is down to money.
So it has changed the transfer market as clubs have serious competition from Saudi Arabia — a very lucrative market has opened up.
Are Chelsea using Saudi Arabia to get round their Financial Fair Play issues after spending £600 million?
This is something that has been brought up a lot in the last couple of days. Chelsea have spent £600 million over the last couple of transfer windows and they need to balance the books and sell some players. Out of the blue, suddenly the Saudis have come along and said: “We’ll have some of your players and we have £100 million to give you.” People from the outside are looking at it and finding it a little strange — suddenly Chelsea have this way of balancing the books.
People have also said that the PIF of Saudi Arabia — who owns the four Saudi Arabia clubs looking to buy the Chelsea players — have made an investment into a Clearlake Capital, a private equity fund who are majority shareholders at Chelsea. People have tried to see if there is something strange going on there.
But from what Sky Sports News have been told, this has nothing to do with it. The sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia invest in lots of private equity funds all over the world and Clearlake has investments in 400 different companies. Chelsea would say there is absolutely no conflict of interest in there whatsoever.