Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the few well-known players to join a club from Saudi Arabia for free. After him, Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema turned down another season at Real Madrid to join the Portuguese. Former teammates ended up in different clubs, but in the same country. And most recently, the transfer of Neymar was announced.
Then immediately 3 Chelsea players moved to the Saudi Arabian League. This is not the whole list, which, for sure, will expand even before the transfer window closes. This summer, Saudi Arabia is signing the most famous players from world football, but why is this happening and does such purchasing power pose a threat to big European clubs?
Saudi Arabia wants to expand its economy to other industries to ensure a good financial future. The country feels confident due to the sale of oil, but it is not a fact that this will always be the case. They need to diversify their economy. They do this through the PIF, the Sovereign Wealth Fund.
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Why does the country need it?
Sports is one of the specific areas that the authorities want to develop in the country, including the football league. They want to create their own leisure and entertainment industry and tap into the great interest of the Saudi population, 70% of whom are under 40, in football.
Football is very popular in Saudi Arabia – they were the most supported team at the World Cup in Qatar last year. In addition, their team beat eventual champions Argentina in the group stage. The authorities see this as a way to increase the growth of tourism in the country. They want to represent Saudi Arabia on the international map and improve their ranking in the world.
Amnesty International has accused Saudi Arabia of running a “sports money laundering” program to try to cover up its poor human rights record. Another organization, Human Rights Watch, said that “Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars on big entertainment, cultural and sporting events to divert attention from the country’s poor human rights record.”
In its 2022 World Report, Human Rights Watch concluded that while some reforms have been announced in Saudi Arabia, “ongoing repression and disrespect for basic human rights are serious obstacles to progress.” A United Nations investigation into the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi found that his death “constitutes a murder for which Saudi Arabia is responsible.”
Not surprisingly, there are parallels with China and the birth of the Super League in 2004, when Chelsea star Oscar and West Ham forward Marko Arnautovic suddenly moved to the Far East. What happened in China was a direct order from the president. He said he wants China to host the World Cup, have a good national team and a high-level national championship.
But then the ruling Communist Party of China changed its mind. They did not like the fact that money was flowing out of China into Europe and into the pockets of foreigners who had to pay large sums. They decided to end it and many different rules were put in place to control how many foreign players could be in the Chinese Super League. As then, Saudi Arabia’s goal is long-term. But the Saudis have more money. And it makes sense that they are taking it more seriously.
This summer we have seen Saudi clubs mentioned in every transfer rumor. Saudi Arabia has the money to sign any player they want, as long as he wants to come. Many footballers at the peak of their careers are likely to refuse, but not all. Top clubs were interested in signing Ruben Neves and Milinkovic-Savic, but they left for Saudi Arabia. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with money. So the transfer market has a new serious player to be reckoned with.