‘Could poor, rich Saudi Arabia ever be match fit?’

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 21, 2023
Riyadh's sudden interest in big ticket sport has many commentators – sports and political – warning the world will never be the same again. Well, it never is. Plus ça change and all that
A football fan in Riyadh Park, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Ohood Abdulaziz on Unsplash

There it is again. Persuasion, the publication and community that seeks “to build a free society”, is raising the alarm about Saudi Arabia and its attitude to sport.

The kingdom “wants to launder its reputation. It’s betting sport is the answer”, Persuasion wrote. “Exceptional talents, including World Cup champions and former FIFA Players of the Year, are leaving top clubs to find new homes, and hardly a day passes where headlines do not blare the latest splash signing.” It noted that the “shuffle of talent is typical to every offseason”, but that the destination is “different this year…these players aren’t landing in Milan, London, or Paris, as one might expect, but in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Mecca”.

The note of horror is familiar. It’s what I’ve previously discussed in my Times of India piece about the cocktail of condescension, censoriousness and cynicism that followed the start of the Saudi and English leagues. The trigger for my piece was Western coverage of the Saudi Pro League’s new season. It kicked off nearly a month ago (Friday, Aug 12) on the same day the English Premier League, the world’s richest and most popular football division, began its season in Burnley, England.

Commentators kept raising the issue of Saudi Arabia’s money and human rights record, many of which are pertinent. However, it felt like the question really being asked was ‘Could poor, rich Saudi Arabia ever be match fit?’

And then a further inquiry: ‘Can Saudi Arabia ever be match fit enough to pass for a sporty country?’

The question about match fitness may seem apposite considering levels of Saudi obesity are roughly three times the global average per 2016 World Health Organisation data. But I’m not sure the condescension is on account of overweight Saudi men and women (35.6 per cent of the population, according to a national survey conducted between 1995 and 2000).

That condescension mixed with horror seems to drip off many an Anglophone tongue is all about oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion dollar push into global sports. Football, Formula 1 motor racing, golf, cricket, boxing, American basketball…everything is bending towards the powerful gravitational pull of the Saudi riyal (1 SAR, incidentally, equals .27 USD).

The men’s ATP tennis tour has admitted to “positive” talks with possible investors, including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). The women’s tennis tour is reported to be considering whether to hold an event in Saudi. The country will host the Asian Winter Games in 2029 and there is intense speculation it will follow its neighbour (and occasional rival) Qatar in launching a bid to host the World Cup, possibly in 2034.

Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in big ticket sport has many commentators – sports and political – warning the world will never be the same again.

Well, of course it won’t. It never is. Plus ça change and all that.

But the moaning this time round is larded with an extra special mournfulness.

Just as in the new Persuasion piece, Jonathan Liew warned in The Guardian in June about giving in to “curiously prevalent misconceptions” about the stealth with which the Saudis took over the PGA Tour. It wasn’t, he said, “simply part of an elaborate public relations exercise, a sanitisation of its image, an attempt to deflect attention away from its human rights abuses, its treatment of women and LGBT people, its brutal justice system, its role in a ruinous war in Yemen”. In fact, Mr Liew said, the “extreme secrecy of the LIV-PGA Tour deal exposes the fact it knows exactly what people think of it…Does this strike you as the behaviour of a regime concerned with winning hearts and minds? The brazenness, the wall of silence, the smoke and mirrors, the decision to present this deal to the world as a fait accompli: this is all part of the performance. The projection of power matters as much as the power itself. It says to the world: we bone-sawed a journalist, we bought golf and you didn’t even know anything was happening”.

There is an element of truth in what he said. The Saudis did bone-saw Jamal Khashoggi after they murdered him; they did buy up professional golf and no one knew what was happening. But isn’t it a bit rich to complain that various sports properties and franchises are up for sale when the point of their being on the market is they attract the best price?

True too, as The Guardian piece pointed out, that PIF-financed LIV Golf’s negotiations with the PGA Tour ahead of the controversial merger were conducted in complete secrecy. That may point to chilling power projection, or it may not.

As I noted in my Times of India op-ed, Fahad Nazer of the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. has denied the idea his country is sportswashing its image. It “could not be further from the truth”, he said, adding that such claims reek of “ethnocentricity”. Everything is being done with Saudi Arabia and its citizens in mind, not Westerners, he said.

In the interests of fairness, it may be worth giving him the benefit of the doubt. Reading Mr Nazer’s protestations, I suddenly remembered Finland’s fat-to-fit national programme of transformation, pursued by the government across every aspect of life for the better part of a half-century. Could Saudi be trying something like that, or one bespoke aspect of it, trying to bring about a mental sportiness, a jauntiness that comes with owning a big share of the world’s sports wealth?

There is no certainty the Saudis want to be or can be physically sporty and match fit a la, say Americans. But national symbols, habits and conversations do contribute to cultural change and when they do change, cultures do so slowly, almost imperceptibly.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have, at great expense, achieved the biggest PR breakthrough possible. Everyone now knows that something called the Saudi Pro League exists and that in it there is a club called Al Nassr, where  Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mané will play.

Also read:

The Saudi shimmy: Oil’s well with football

Philby was writing about Saudi Arabia’s anti-western core a hundred years ago

How real is the mantra that ‘the Saudis are changing, really changing’?

Heard the one about the Saudi and the American who met in a desert town?

That ‘awkward’ but essential relationship between US & Saudi Arabia

Is it really true that Mecca is the biggest pedestrian problem in the world?

‘Sportswashing’ goes much beyond Qatar. What about Trump and the Saudis?

How will Taliban 2.0 interpret Sharia law in Afghanistan?

Noodle time: What the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to China really means

Who ‘premeditated’ Jamal Khashoggi’s murder?

The Saudi paradox: Hollywood-watching millennials a world apart from the world

Is there a sensible way forward on Saudi? Yes, but Trump may not go along

Meet Mr & Mrs Saudi Normal. Was her firstborn, Osama bin Laden, an aberration?

‘Saudi First’ is changing the contours of West Asia