June 18, 2018

Saudi Arabia Sets Goals for Football On and Off the Pitch

Saudi Arabia national football team
Players from Saudi Arabia's national soccer team gather prior to the start of their World Cup match against Russia in Moscow, Russia, June 14. (AP Photo/Victor Caivano)
by and Turki Buyabes

This post is part of an AGSIW series on Saudi Vision 2030, a sweeping set of programs and reforms adopted by the Saudi government to be implemented by 2030.

Despite its 5-0 defeat to host team Russia in its opening World Cup match June 14, Saudi Arabia still can take pride in being one of the 32 top teams vying for glory in the world’s most popular sporting spectacle. The now familiar face of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be seen in the stands next to Russian President Vladimir Putin as each cheered on his national team in the opening match of this premier event. MbS’ attendance demonstrates the priority Saudi Arabia has placed on football (or soccer, if you wish) and the high hopes for economic and political payoffs, with big plans to expand its reach back home and raise Saudi Arabia’s sports profile abroad.

The investment in football is in line with the Vision 2030 diversification plans, with its new emphasis on entertainment and sports, both areas that attract the critical youth constituency. The football pitch is seen as another venue to display Saudi Arabia’s newfound social openness and diverse talents, and a vehicle to attract private investment. Abroad, Saudi Arabia is looking to draw upon the well-established appeal of soccer to burnish the kingdom’s international profile and stoke national pride. However, as the Saudi leadership throws its prestige and money into this new soft power venture, it is coming up against an earlier regional entrant into this game, rival Qatar, and ruffling feathers through the actions of the forceful head of the Saudi General Sports Authority, MbS-confidant Turki Al-Sheikh. In soccer – as in other ventures – Saudi Arabia’s assertiveness and nationalism are on full display.

New Leadership, New Ambitions

The personification of the kingdom’s new ambition in soccer is its brash head of the Saudi General Sports Authority, Turki Al-Sheikh, a close advisor to MbS with the rank of minister. He represents the new Saudi Arabia spearheaded by the crown prince: headstrong, energetic, and eager to take quick action. Since his appointment as the head of the GSA, the Saudi opening to sports has been rapid, publicized through numerous taboo-busting initiatives such as the invitation to host World Wrestling Entertainment events for the next 10 years.

Under Sheikh, the GSA is betting on the transformational potential of sports to remake the kingdom imagined in the Vision 2030 plan to: diversify the Saudi economy and create jobs, instill a competitive and active sporting culture within Saudi society, and use sports as a platform to enhance the country’s image abroad. Unspoken, but clear in all of these policies, is the desire to instill a new nationalistic pride that unites Saudi youth under MbS rule, replacing the religious orthodoxy that defined the conservative kingdom for generations.

As the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia, soccer features prominently in GSA plans. The kingdom has a domestic league anchored by the four leading clubs in its largest cities, Riyadh and Jeddah. Yet their performance has not met the expectations of Saudi Arabia’s youthful population due to administrative weakness and chronic corruption. Attendance has lagged this season with just a million fans going to stadiums to watch games. Financial sustainability is also a problem despite state ownership of clubs. While government largesse is apparent in attracting big-time foreign players, poor institutional oversight has led to neglect in basic payroll, as 20 percent of cases dealing with unpaid salaries for FIFA, the international soccer governing body, originate in Saudi Arabia. These administrative problems threaten to undermine GSA plans to privatize the Saudi Premier League. In an interview with Bloomberg, Sheikh stated that the privatization of the domestic league could raise $800 million to $1.5 billion, and insisted, despite skepticism, that the GSA was on target to generate 40,000 jobs in five years.

The development of an active sporting culture dovetails with the Vision 2030 plan’s emphasis on competition and improving Saudi lifestyle and health. This is evident in the growing role for women, as personified in the appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud to head a women’s section of the General Sports Authority. She has overseen the initiation of girls’ fitness in schools and the licensing of women’s health clubs. In January, Saudi women were also welcomed as fans into three soccer stadiums for the first time.

The GSA has formed a technical committee and launched a series of grass-root programs to increase competitiveness and attract Saudi talent to the soccer pitch. Unfortunately, a joint agreement with La Liga, Spain’s premier soccer division, where nine Saudi players were loaned to Spanish clubs to train and play to improve their skill levels before the World Cup, did not go as planned, as the players were unable to make the cut for games. Still, there are efforts to reach out to other leagues, with the GSA having signed an agreement with Italian soccer league Serie A for Saudi Arabia to host three of the next five Italian Super Cups. This relationship building is extending to FIFA and the heart of world soccer.

A Bid for Soft Power Influence

Short on soccer talent, Saudi Arabia must rely more heavily on its wealth to strengthen its influence in the game. Recently, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a big financial backer in FIFA-related projects. A consortium of Asian and Middle Eastern investors thought to be centered in Saudi Arabia and China is seeking control over an expanded Club World Cup alongside a new global league for national teams backed by a $25 billion proposal. Saudi Arabia has also been building political clout through the creation of a new regional football bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation. Based in Jeddah and comprising 14 countries, the federation seeks to initiate development programs and hold Asian soccer tournaments that would rival the standing of the Asian Football Confederation, which coincidentally is headed by an ally, a royal from Bahrain. The South West Asian Football Federation was already instrumental in providing votes for the three-country North American bid over Morocco to hold the 2026 World Cup, displaying Saudi Arabia’s newfound leverage in the sport. Saudi Arabia has also been incorporating soccer in its soft power initiatives, with King Salman bin Abdulaziz promising to build a 100,000-seat stadium in Iraq as a way to strengthen relations between Riyadh and Baghdad and counterbalance Iran.

As Saudi Arabia seeks new standing in international soccer it is running up against a more seasoned Gulf competitor in the sports arena. Qatar has established itself in club soccer with sponsorships of FC Barcelona and AS Roma and ownership of Paris Saint-Germain, where Doha’s petrodollars helped break the world record transfer fee with the $263 million dollar purchase of Brazilian superstar Neymar Da Silva Santos Jr. Qatar’s surprise successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup cemented the tiny Gulf state’s profile on the international sports stage, though also brought unwanted attention to its labor practices. Saudi Arabia and the quartet of countries leading a boycott of Qatar since June 2017 have questioned Qatar’s legitimacy hosting the World Cup and forced a shift in venue of the Gulf Cup from Qatar to Kuwait in January. The recent spat regarding broadcasting rights for the 2018 World Cup, held by Qatari-owned beIN Sports, has led to accusations of state-sanctioned piracy on the part of Saudi Arabia and Saudi pledges to create the kingdom’s own sports broadcasting network to compete with beIN, the ESPN of the Middle East.

Looking to the Future

While Saudi Arabia is steadily growing its financial and political power in the world of soccer, it still has ways to go in order to position itself as the de facto soccer power in the region. Yet in the style of MbS, the Saudis are seeking quick progress. Recently Sheikh proclaimed that Saudi Arabia’s goal is to have one of the top seven domestic leagues in the world by 2020.

Nonetheless, the Saudi leadership courts some risks in tying its national ambitions and the expectations of the kingdom’s young population to a still underdeveloped national league and pool of talent. The disappointing showing of the Saudi national team in the opening match of the World Cup left MbS without much to cheer for in Moscow. Turki Al-Sheikh responded by defiantly looking to the future, promising to turn to the next generation to achieve Saudi Arabia’s soccer dreams.

Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Turki Buyabes is an intern at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; he recently completed his master’s at American University.