Saudi Arabia’s tab for using icons of western popular culture to enhance its stature and sway on the global stage could soon rise by another nine figures.
The kingdom is reportedly willing to pay Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi $400 million-a-year for the twilight of his career. While a huge sum, even by football’s bloated standards, it’s just the latest in a string of moves by the petrostate’s rulers, who are plowing billions into sports, art and music.
Saudi Arabia hopes the spending, powered by excess revenue from its role as the world’s biggest crude exporter, will excite its burgeoning younger generation and supercharge its tourism industry. Critics say the efforts are aimed at varnishing an international image battered by a brutal war in Yemen and murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Overseeing this so-called soft power play is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s simultaneously spending billions to build Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities, with what is now the world’s fifth-largest arms budget, and pursuing a more opportunistic diplomatic track that’s repeatedly put Riyadh at odds with Washington.
“It’s a complete reorientation of the kingdom,” says Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They want to convince people this is a welcoming place, not a threatening one.”
The magnitude of its spending has made Saudi Arabia impossible to ignore for the world’s political and business elite. The kingdom’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the Group of 20 last year, boosted by the highest oil prices in about a decade, and it now boasts the world’s seventh-largest sovereign wealth fund, deploying billions both at home and abroad.
Sports assets have been high on the shopping list.
In late 2022, Portuguese football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo signed a contract with Al-Nassr FC worth a reported $200 million a year. Little more than a year prior, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund led a consortium that acquired English Premier League football club Newcastle United FC for more than £300 million ($373 million). Saudi Arabia is considering a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, having witnessed the recent success of the tournament in neighboring Qatar.
The PIF has also reportedly earmarked billions of dollars to finance its LIV Golf tour, which has attracted stars including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, and last year considered a $20 billion attempt to add Formula 1 motor racing to its growing portfolio of sports investments. Elsewhere, venues in and around Jeddah and Riyadh have hosted mega-money boxing bouts featuring everyone from heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk to up-and-coming fighters Jake Paul and Tommy Fury.
“Sport is essential to what Saudi is doing as it moves toward a world where it is less dependent on oil revenues,” according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in Paris.
Saudi Arabia wants tourism to account for 10% of its gross domestic product in 2030, by which time it hopes to be attracting 100 million visitors a year. In 2022, the kingdom hosted about 16 million visitors, including tourists, business travelers, those coming to see relatives residing in the country and overseas Muslims on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a Saudi Tourism Authority representative said at a press briefing in Dubai this month.
To reach its target, Saudi Arabia has been looking beyond just professional sports. From an Andy Warhol exhibition, art biennale and electronic music concerts in the desert, to celebrity chef restaurants in Riyadh and partnerships with top culinary schools, it’s spending heavily to create an entertainment and leisure industry from scratch.
High-end hotels Aman Resorts and Banyan Tree have already been drawn to Al-Ula, an ancient oasis city in Saudi Arabia’s northwest that’s being transformed into a luxury travel destination on a budget of $35 billion. US pop stars Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and John Legend have all recently performed there.
Phillip Jones, chief tourism officer of the country’s Royal Commission for Al-Ula, said that, while some artists still refuse to visit the kingdom, the smart money is in Saudi Arabia looking for opportunities to invest. “They recognize that this country is about to explode in terms of financial capacity growth,” he said.
And it’s not just the private sector. In recent years, the UK and France have signed cultural cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia.
The sudden influx of sporting and cultural events is popular in the country, which until only recently enforced rules forbidding men and women from mixing together in public. But not everyone is buying the hype. Campaigners say Saudi Arabia is deflecting attention from a poor domestic record on free speech and other human rights.
“I’m glad these changes are happening, but it gives a false impression of our country,” Lina Al-Hathloul, Brussels-based head of monitoring and advocacy at human rights group ALQST, said of MBS’s soft power blueprint. She said once this strategy of using culture, sports and the arts to rehabilitate the Crown Prince’s reputation and woo Western investors and visitors yields dividends, “violations we point out will no longer be effective.”
Lina Al-Hathloul’s sister, Loujain Al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in 2018 and later jailed on charges of inciting regime change and seeking to serve foreign agendas. She was released in 2021.
Al-Ula’s metamorphosis is just one project feeding into MBS’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s economy — something not universally welcomed within its borders. Members of the Howeitat tribe have been arrested for resisting forced evictions linked to the giant Neom megacity project and risk the death penalty, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement on May 3.
A representative for Neom declined to comment. The Saudi government’s Center for International Communications didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this month, Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, led a large contingent taking part in the annual Arabian Travel Market exhibition in Dubai. He said it was only the third time Saudi Arabia had participated in the trade show that launched 30 years ago.
Addressing reporters at a luxury hotel during the event, Hamidaddin sat in front of a large screen flicking images of a smiling Messi in his capacity as a Saudi tourism ambassador. The footballer and his family were shown weaving baskets, petting Arabian thoroughbreds and playing in amusement parks during a visit to the kingdom.
“To those that are skeptics, if you want to put effort in talking and saying things about Saudi, I would encourage you to see it before you make that effort,” Hamidaddin said at the event.