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Saudis take the sports world by storm

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Cristiano Ronaldo, regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, was the first blockbuster signing of the Saudi League, completing the move to Al Nassr FC in January 2023.

In the past year, lucrative Saudi groups have stormed the sports world. One sport after another was taken over overnight, most notably, golf with the Professional Golfers’ Association and LIV merger, soccer and Formula One Racing. Unknown to many, the gears for the Saudi sports takeover were set in motion as early as 30 years ago.

While the Saudis used their immense wealth to buy teams and bring athletes to Saudi Arabian sponsored leagues and tournaments, many took to social media expressing strong opinions. 

Some people argue that Saudi actions are considered “sports washing.” The term is used when a group enters the sports world as a way to improve their public image. 

In the past, many fans have acknowledged the human rights abuses, but they claim that the Saudi Arabian Sports Federation looks at sports ventures as a business opportunity and investment. Many believe the anger towards Saudi involvement in sports is fueled by racism, seeing as other nations have done similar things in the past without as much consequence. 

Formula One, a sport that has recently seen Arab influence, has gained popularity in recent years, especially in the US. All tracks worldwide are covered with Adboards displaying the logos of Qatar Airways and Aramco, the official Saudi oil group. The new President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) is Mohammed Ben Sulayem of the United Arab Emirates, and his arrival has brought many changes to the sport.

“I don’t think they were headed in the right direction, so I do like his new vision,” senior Shahmir Kashif, president of the motorsports club said.

While Arab influence in the sport seems recent, it can be traced back to 1977, when Saudi Air partnered with Williams F1 to form Saudia-Williams. The team won the championship three years later. In 2020, Formula 1 announced the introduction of a new race to the calendar, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. In 2021, Saudi Public Investment Fund invested in McLaren Racing and later in 2022 Aston Martin Racing.

Although some welcomed Saudi Arabian sports teams, others feel that it has ruined the image of racing. 

“It’s pretty cool seeing new thoughts and ideas from different parts of the world,” Kashif said. “ I think people should definitely step back before they blame everything on Saudi Arabia because really they’re the savior of F1.”

Saudis have even backed representation for women in a sport where there are currently only male drivers. Kashif attributes the continued backlash towards them to the fact that people are being discriminatory against Saudis.

“If someone messes up in real life and they’re trying to do better, no one goes, ‘oh, they’re just doing it for the image,” Kashif said, believing that people should recognize Saudi efforts with an unbiased perspective.

When it comes to soccer, the Saudis have been busy this past summer with a record smashing over one billion dollars spent on player transfers to the Saudi Pro League. Saudis have had their eyes on soccer since the early 1990s where they hosted small tournaments and competitions. In the 2000s they ramped up their efforts with big time investments in soccer clubs around the world like Manchester United in 2017.

“It’s pretty bold of them to do this, and I know a lot of people feel that Saudi Arabia has stolen big name players,” sophomore Ismael Sultan said.

The Saudis also built up the SPL into a competitive league in preparation for their big spending this past summer. The tipping point leading to the whirlwind of transfers this summer is pretty recent with Cristiano Ronaldo’s blockbuster $75 million a year transfer to Saudi side Al-Nassr in December 2022. Ronaldo quickly became the face of the league and spoke on its potential to become a top global league. In March 2023 Italy’s Serie A (Italian soccer league) agreed that the Italian Super Cup would be played in Saudi Arabia for 4 out of the next 6 years, and the Spanish Supercopa (Spanish club soccer tournament) was hosted in Saudi Arabia this year.

“It’s a smart move by the Saudi Sports Federation, and this “sports-washing term” being assigned to them is really invalid and unfair,” Sultan said.

When the summer transfer window opened, the Saudis began their strategic offensive by signing players like Ballon D’Or, winner Karim Benzema and household name Neymar Jr. They signed big name players who were looking to finish off their illustrious careers as well as young and up-and-coming talent. Al-Ettifaq also signed English legend Steven Gerrard as their new manager. While many players were wooed by the incredible money the SPL has to offer, some players declined offers. Most notably among these players were Killian Mbappe who was offered over $1 billion a year and Mohamed Salah who was offered $215 million. 

Sultan says the Saudi league has the potential to grow even more.

“The Saudi League is good,” Sultan said. “It’s a good start to be able to add more countries into the champions league (historic European tournament) and expand global soccer.”

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About the Contributor
Zain Imam
Zain Imam, Staff Writer
Zain Imam ('26) joined The Review in 2023 as a sophomore. He loves watching sports especially Liverpool soccer team. He has never broken a bone. 

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  • T

    Truefeminist861May 2, 2024 at 8:39 PM

    Truly amazing article, really opened my eyes to the world of sports in Saudi Arabia. Fantastic work.

  • S

    Soccer fan 123May 2, 2024 at 3:49 PM

    Fantastic article, the article we all needed. Truly masterful articulation by the writer. Hats off, brilliant job