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The Lucrative Business of Sportswashing: How Oil-Rich Nations Use Sports to Improve Their Image

As more soccer players leave Europe for the riches of Saudi Arabia, a bigger pursuit is at play: reshaping the image of a region through sports

As an Arab-American, I am all too familiar with the term “oil money”. In my teenage years, I lived in Amman, Jordan. It is a country in the heart of the Middle East that shares borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. As one of the countries in the region that isn’t subjected to 120°F days in the summer, Jordan was a popular summer retreat for people that lived in the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, etc.). They would venture to Amman, rent a house for a few months and have a good time. This was my first exposure to the sheer volume of riches that those who live in oil-rich countries have access to.

During those summers, I watched young men spending their money like it was a bottomless bag of riches, mainly because it was. And it is with this context that I see continuous reports of Saudi Arabia spending money to fortify its sports ambitions without much surprise. It all came to a head when French soccer superstar Kylian Mbappe was offered a one-year contract of nearly $800M to play for Saudi club Al-Hilal (in addition to a reported $332M transfer fee). Mbappe refused this offer but many were left with sticker shock as to why a Saudi club would offer so much money to a player for just one season. It is because in sports the Saudi Arabians have seen an opportunity to clean their reputation in the eyes of the masses in the West. It’s a process called sportswashing, and it has already been successful. But what does that mean for the future of professional athletics?

A Growing Trend

The idea of people wealthy from a seemingly endless supply of oil is not a new concept. Premier League club Manchester City was purchased in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group and in 2011 Qatar Sports Investments purchased French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. And with these acquisitions came a steady and unrelenting influx of cash. The results speak for themselves. Before Manchester City was acquired, the last top flight league title it won was in 1968. Fast forward to today, and the club has won the English Premier League title 5 times in the last 6 years. Similarly, the last time Paris Saint-Germain won the French Ligue 1 title before its acquisition was in 1994, and since the acquisition has won the league 9 times rendering French soccer to being a one-club race. The formula has been proven, spending money gets you players and that will bring you success.

We have seen this blueprint followed in the purchase of clubs like Newcastle United and Sheffield United following a similar path. The increase in these purchases is a bit unusual because the wealth is represented by nations as opposed to a billionaire or investment group that we may be used to seeing. What this has led to this year is the next step in the fortification of sporting ambitions for oil nations which is to lure players away from Europe with mammoth-sized contracts to play in Saudi Arabia. It all started when aging superstar Cristiano Ronaldo signed a 2 and a half year deal with Saudi club Al-Nassr worth more than $200M. This opened the floodgates for other European players to make the jump to Saudi Arabia, including:

  • Sadio Mane

  • Allan Saint-Maximin

  • Riyad Mahrez

  • Jordan Henderson

  • N’Golo Kante

  • Karim Benzema

  • Roberto Firmino

By offering a “no price is too high” approach, the Saudi Pro League in one transfer window has done what the MLS has been unable to do: attract multiple name brand talents to make the league interesting and worth at least paying attention to. The country is investing in its pro league and will continue to do so, which is what the Mbappe offer is indicative of. It is one thing to continue to lure players in their late 30s, but getting a player entering his prime that is poised to become the world’s next greatest soccer star is another one entirely. As the money is there, they will continue to offer it to players, and potentially athletes in other sports as well. But the true motivation is not simply to bolster a domestic league or buy into a larger league like the Premier League. What these oil-rich nations are attempting to accomplish is to overlook and forget the reasons why people in the West are hostile towards them. And by buying teams and acquiring players, they are starting to succeed.

Reshaping the Narrative

I first started to notice it while watching the World Cup that took place in Qatar. During every commercial break, there would be an ad promoting Qatar’s openness to working with the West, to being a place where your business can thrive. It was a message that felt more like propaganda than a piece of marketing. Qatar as a nation, knew who would be watching this event and saw it as a massive opportunity to reframe the way that the world outside of the Middle East saw it as a nation. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is attempting to reshape a similar narrative. When people think about the Gulf nations of the Middle East, they think of the oil money but they also make associations with violent radicalism, the oppression of women, and human rights violations.

As an Arab man myself, I can appreciate the want to be portrayed in a different light, to show the world that you are not a stereotype. I cannot begin to count the number of times that someone made an assumption that I was a violent person by nature who hated any Western ideals because I was Arab. I have witnessed firsthand the misconceptions about our culture as has been popularized by TV, movies, and depictions in the media. There is an urge to show that while we are different it doesn’t mean that we are barbarians. Beyond that, there is a deeper realization that money that is made is in the West and the Far East, so staying confined to the Middle East bubble is no longer wise in an age of globalization.

But despite that, it does not take away the bad actors that Arab culture has had, as all cultures have also had. Stories about the mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar, the execution of political opponents, and others are well documented and stories that the general Arab collective would like to divert attention from. This is not an unusual desire, much like how Americans would like to divert attention away from gun violence and drug epidemics that have plagued it this century. But instead of driving awareness to the issues and beginning to enact reform, the solution of the Arab nations has been instead to gloss over them. By investing heavily into sports (beyond soccer these nations have also invested heavily in golf and tennis as well), Arab nations have decided to throw money at the problem and hope that it would absolve the decades of negativity that is associated with the region.

Money Starts Talking

Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar once said, “Everyone has a price, the important thing is to find out what it is.” His words were true during his life in Columbia in the 1980s and are even more true today. While it sounds cynical, the reality is that for enough money the morals that people stood so proudly upon seem to vanish. A perfect example of this is former Liverpool FC captain Jordan Henderson, who recently joined Saudi club Al Ettifaq. Henderson’s move was especially eyebrow raising due to the fact that he has been a staunch LGBTQ+ ally and rights advocate, and yet the money was good enough from a regime that has shown itself to be hostile towards that community, to put it lightly.

There is often a conflation between our favorite sports teams and the morality that they represent. We have seen this globally as teams have put their support behind causes like Black Lives Matter and other progressive causes despite their ownership groups not feeling the same way. There is a divide between the people that we watch on TV, the players, and the people that cut their paychecks. Players are often from humble beginnings and are gifted enough to overcome their situations to earn generational wealth for themselves and their families. Team owners, on the other hand, are often born into money or have been blessed with more fortunate financial circumstances. There is an awareness that the players have about social issues that owners simply do not. But as Escobar said, everyone has a price and we are seeing what that number is for a number of athletes.

It is easy enough to understand the incentive for the athletes to sign on for a Saudi Arabian league, play a few years in this country and make more money than you ever could have dreamed of. But what is the end game of the Saudi league? From my viewpoint it is a business proposition. By the year 2027, it is projected that the global sports industry will be worth over $623B, which pales in comparison to the behemoth $5T oil industry, but is not insignificant. The sports world offers an opportunity to reshape the image from ruthless takeovers and exploitation to one of the unbridled joy that a person feels when their team wins a championship.

The end goal is ultimately to show Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others as worthy business partners for European nations and the United States. It starts by luring Cristiano Ronaldo and Jordan Henderson to show that cooperation is possible. It ultimately leads to the West accepting Saudi Arabia the way they accepted Scandinavian firms in the 1980s and 90s. Because when this happens, these countries are no longer solely reliant on the oil industry especially as electric cars become more viable. By playing into the emotion of fans, and bringing them joy they have never experienced, the sins of the past may very well be forgiven by most. But the true reform needs to come from new policies and procedures to make a long-lasting impact in the global marketplace. For now, however, it seems that the mass population is more than okay pushing its doubt to the back while their teams win trophies because as we all know, winning cures all.

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