Beyond The Saudi’s Oil: Sports, Power, and the Quest for Global Influence

Saudi Arabia
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My favorite sports analyst, Rory Smith of the New York Times, called the Qatar World Cup plastic. Edo Kumwembe, like many, said it was an opportunity out of corruption. Maybe they are right. But boy, the cup did deliver. It didn’t end to my liking, but it was a spectacle nonetheless. I remember Kylian Mbappe spicing up that dull first half to give us the best World Cup final. Every penny of that $200 Billion Qatar spent was worth it! Now, it’s Saudi Arabia that takes charge.

When the cup ended, the Saudi Arabian side, Al Nassr, offered Cristiano Ronaldo a contract that could reach $200M/ per year. Ronaldo was 37 by then and at dusk of his career. The deal was more for the exposure he could bring them. Some even attributed the move to Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the World Cup in 2030. A claim that both parties have denied.

But Ronaldo was not entering uncharted territory. Saudi Arabia had poured crazy money into sports before. In 2021, Saudi Arabia had its inaugural Formula 1 race. Its current contract with World Wrestling Entertainment(WWE) runs through 2027. It has merged its LIV golf with the prestigious PTA. In football, it bought New Castle United in 2021. Ronaldo was meant to spark another revolution.

And he has. He has since pulled the likes of Karim Benzema and Sadio Mane to join the Saudi Pro League. Ngolo Kante, Ruben Neves, Seko Fofana, Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson, Riyad Mahrez, and other big-name old players. Saudi even tried signing Lionel Messi, but he opted to join the MLS.

When Saudi Arabia began signing youth talents, some became threatened. Ranting on X, Jamie Carragher asked UEFA to intervene in the transfers. More people joined him even though major European leagues have been squeezing players from minor leagues forever. That ranting did not stop the Saudis. It has sparked further investment.

The Mbappe Deal: Where Sports, Money, and Morality Collide

It was on July 24, 2023, that they showed their sheer determination. Saudi side Al Hilal offered to buy Kylian Mbappe for $332 million from PSG. Additionally, a $200 million salary could rise to $776 million with other commercial deals. The deal broke the Internet. It had basketball icons LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo joking about switching sports.

However, some have criticized these moves as sports washing. They claim that Saudi Arabia uses sports to distract the conversation from its human rights record. It wants the name Cristiano Ronaldo to pop up when someone thinks about Saudi Arabia, not poor women’s rights.

It’s tradition; whenever something significant happens outside the West, it’s tied to that country’s human rights record. It was so with the 2018 Russian World Cup, the 2020 Beijing Winter Olympics, and the 2020 Qatar World Cup. Western media constantly push how bad human rights are in those countries and ignore the spectacle.

They are right to raise awareness, but that is not the case when covering sports in the West. They reduce the entire event to negativity as if only the West is worth hosting such events. No country is morally innocent.

Take the National Football League (NFL) in the US. It is the world’s richest league, with an annual revenue of $12 billion in 2022. That’s twice the English Premier League (EPL). In 2021, 71% of NFL players were black, but only three coaches of color were there. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), the pattern repeats itself. In 2022, 73% of players were black, 15 coaches were black, and only one majority owner was black.

Even if we ignore that no one brings up the Invasion of Iraq during NFL and NBA games, this is sports washing. These leagues deny black people positions of power while most of their players are black. This pattern is not absent in the EPL, La Liga, or Bundesliga; black people face racism while the conversation stays on the goals and not on what Vinicius Jr. endured.

Pointing out another person’s failures when yours are pointed out is “whataboutism” but pointing out another’s failures while ignoring yours is equally harmful and is plain hypocrisy. Saudi Arabia is trying to cement itself as a world power, and actual superpowers have both military and cultural influence.

Saudi Arabia’s Investment in a Future Beyond Oil

Think of the US, the world’s strongest nation. It has the world’s strongest army and is a cultural juggernaut. Hollywood, the world’s most prominent movie market, is in the US. This lets the US decide what content the world watches. Kids in Tanzania dream about working in Hollywood and winning an Oscar.

Its music industry is second to none. Usually, other music industries model themselves to it. Look at how K-pop copies the American style or how the best-selling songs worldwide are usually from America.

Also vibrant is the fashion sector in the US. It’s so powerful that the rest of the world, even superpowers like China and Russia, are filled with American cloth brands in their markets. And that’s not all. It controls technology, from social media(X & META), cars (Tesla & Ford), phones (Apple), and so much more. This is no coincidence. The US understood that military strength is as important as cultural strength.

That’s what Saudi Arabia is doing. It’s trying to establish itself as a global player. Sports is just the fastest way to attract people. Through doing this, it is also diversifying its economy from oil. The GDP of Saudi Arabia is 40% dependent on oil, and 80% of its exports are oil. Saudi Arabia understands that oil needs will decrease by 2040, so it’s taking steps to diversify its economy. It is in the process of building a $500 billion city in the desert called Neom. The city will essentially be a tourist hub meant to earn the kingdom billions and create non-oil jobs.

The country also plans to encourage foreign investment, privatize some state-owned enterprises, and invest in renewables. It is a feat that seems somehow unachievable shortly, but Saudi Arabia has billions from the oil it produces.

It has- and must- diversify its economy before it’s too late. And if it takes a billion dollars to bring Mbappe to Saudi Arabia, it will pay. Mbappe brings with him millions of eyes, eyes that can monetize in an oilless world.

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