Saudi Arabia spends $6bn on ‘sportswashing’

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has spent at least $6.3 billion (£4.9 billion) in sportswashing sports deals since the beginning of 2021. This is more than treble the previous amount spent over a six-year period and has been labelled by naysayers as an attempt to divert attention away from its record regarding human rights.

According to a research conducted by the Guardian, Saudi Arabia has spent billions from its Public Investment Fund over the course of the previous two and a half years on sportswashing sports at a scale that has entirely reshaped the professional golf industry and transformed the international transfer market for football.

A world-record offer for the French national team captain Kylian Mbappé was made on Monday by the Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal. The offer is estimated to be worth €300 million (or £259 million).

The investment of $6.3 billion is nearly similar to the gross domestic product of either Montenegro or the island of Barbados. It completely obliterates the data that was produced by Grant Liberty two years ago, which estimated that Saudi Arabia spent $1.5 billion between 2014 and the beginning of 2021 on sportswashing.

Such spending is referred to as “sportswashing” by rights organisations such as Grant Liberty, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. This refers to the funding of high-profile athletic events in an effort to divert attention from a country’s poor track record with human rights.

According to Grant Liberty, “In the past, sports figures and brands had turned down offers to engage with Saudi Arabia due to the country’s well-documented violations of human rights.” “However, there has been a worrisome shift in moral stance, as lucrative deals are now being accepted despite the ongoing and deteriorating violations,” “However, there has been a shift in moral stance sportswashing,”

Following murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Saudi Arabia came under widespread condemnation, and a number of prominent firms pulled out of or paused their interests in the country.

However, there has been a change in the world’s perception of the kingdom during the course of the past two years. Joe Biden, who had previously stated that he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the death, travelled to Saudi Arabia last year and controversially bumped fists with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de-facto head of the country.

The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is one of 10 largest sovereign wealth funds in world, and its assets are estimated to be $700 billion. The Guardian has produced and analyzed a list of investments made by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund and other state entities, such as the tourism authority, all of which were signed after the year 2021. Given that the PIF is famously secretive about its finances and that the specifics of some purchases are not disclosed to the public, the overall value of $6.3 billion is most likely an underestimate of the genuine amount.

Concerns were raised when the Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased Newcastle United in October 2021 for $391 million. Amnesty International was particularly harsh in its criticism of the club after photographs obtained through a leak revealed that the club had altered its away kit to resemble the colours of the Saudi national team on sportswashing.

Amnesty International’s Felix Jakens claimed that the decision “exposes the power of the Saudi dollar and the kingdom’s determination to sportswash its brutal, blood-soaked human rights record.” Jakens was speaking on behalf of Amnesty International.

After another year had passed, the PIF announced that it planned to spend $2.3 billion on football sponsorships. This includes large investments of an undisclosed kind in an attempt to acquire majority shares in four Saudi Arabian football teams. The four teams have spent a lot of money in order to lure players from all over the world. In particular, Al-Nassr has spent a lot of money because they signed superstar player Cristiano Ronaldo for a reported yearly salary of $200 million, which makes him the highest-paid athlete in the world.

The arrival of Ronaldo during the previous season was followed by a number of high-profile players and managers, such as Karim Benzema from Real Madrid, N’Golo Kanté from Chelsea, Roberto Firmino from Liverpool, and Steven Gerrard, who was previously the manager of Aston Villa.

According to recent reports, the Saudi Arabian tourist authority pays the football player Lionel Messi an estimated sum of $25 million for his marketing of the nation, which includes blogging about luxurious vacations on various social media platforms. He was presented with a deal worth £350 million by Al Hilal, but he decided to sign with the Major League Soccer club Inter Miami instead.

Saudi Arabia made the announcement that it would be hosting the 2023 Fifa Club World Cup in February of this year amid the sportswashing.

Because of the significant investments made by the PIF, golf has been completely transformed, and Saudi Arabia is now often regarded as the most powerful force in the sport. In October of 2021, the fund made an investment that was projected to be worth $2 billion in order to establish LIV golf as a major tournament.

The decision sparked a heated competition with the PGA tour, which responded by suing the Saudi Arabian government on the grounds that the Saudi-funded enterprise was encouraging players to violate their contractual obligations to participate in other tournaments. In one legal action, the LIV was accused of orchestrating a plan to spend “astronomical sums of money… in an effort to use LIV players and game of golf to sportswash recent history of Saudi atrocities & to further Saudi Public Investment Fund’s… initiatives.”

The feud came to a dramatic and exciting conclusion with the successful takeover of the PGA in order to establish a conglomerate that would control the professional golf industry. Yasir al-Rumayyan, who is now serving as governor of PIF, is expected to take the role of chair.

This month, a senior executive from the PGA informed members of Congress in the United States that the sovereign wealth fund will invest “north of $1 billion” in the new organization. A committee in the United States Senate is looking into the business transaction.

Boxing and auto racing are two of the major sports in which the kingdom has made investments. Jake Paul, a former YouTuber who is now a boxer, competed against Tommy Fury in Riyadh this year for compensation of $3.2 million and $2 million respectively, in addition to a percentage of the pay-per-view earnings. Additionally, it is estimated that the kingdom shelled out sixty million dollars to secure the heavyweight fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua, which will take place in 2022.

PIF made an investment in a $550 million sponsorship of McLaren Group Ltd in 2021. McLaren Group Ltd is a Bahraini-owned firm with headquarters in Woking that is a significant contributor to Formula One through the production of racing vehicles. However, the figure of $6.3 billion does not take into account the $40–45 million that the state-owned oil firm Aramco spends yearly to sponsor Formula One, nor does it take into account other contracts inked prior to 2021, such as the $65 million to stage an annual Grand Prix in the kingdom.

PIF’s extensive spending in the world of e-sports, including a recent $1 billion investment in video game company Embracer Group, is not included in this total. Additionally, the total does not take into account sporting events for which the amount of sponsorship is unknown, such as a March 2021 four-year deal between the planned city of Neom on the Red Sea coast and the Asian Football Confederation.

We have reached out to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington for comment on this matter. The embassy is in the habit of providing responses to inquiries concerning the country.

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