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The expansion of Saudi investments in sport: From football to esport


May 30 2023

Saudi Arabia’s engagement in sports is currently one of the hottest topics in the international sports debate particularly since the Kingdom’s takeover of Newcastle United, the announcement of the breakaway golf tournament LIV Golf Invitational Series in early 2022, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s new contract with the Saudi Arabian football club Al Nassr.The acquisition of Newcastle United has become a very visible symbol of Saudi Arabia’s investments in sport but it was far from a new thing, not even in football. Many football historians and enthusiasts will remember the King Fahd Cup, launched in the mid-1990s, and named after the then Saudi ruler Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The kingdom initially paid all the expenses of participating nations and successfully brought six continental champions to Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh for the first three editions of the tournament. In 1997 FIFA completed its takeover of the tournament and changed the name to FIFA Confederations Cup.

This article looks at the extent of Saudi Arabia’s investments and engagement in international sport as well as their many sponsorships, club ownerships and hosting of sporting events in everything from football and motorsport to golf, wrestling, handball, and the burgeoning scene of esports. All of it made possible by the royal family’s and the regime’s fortunes, its sovereign wealth fund, and state-owned companies.

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ is to transform its economic structure in order to reduce its dependence on oil revenue, the state-owned oil company Aramco has made a lot of money through the years, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine oil and gas prices have skyrocketed and enabled Aramco’s profits to soar by 90% in the second quarter of 2022.
In 2020 Aramco signed a long-term global sponsorship deal with Formula One. It also has a strategic partnership with Aston Martin Racing which means that Aston Martin’s Formula One team officially entered the 2022 season as Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula 1 Team. The PIF is also a major shareholder in Aston Martin.
In addition to Formula One, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has in recent years invested significantly in other areas of motorsport with agreements to host Formula E, Extreme E, and the prestigious Dakar Rally.

'Vision 2030' also consists of the modernisation and construction of new Saudi Arabian cities, the most notable being the creation of a 500-billion US dollars futuristic mega-city called NEOM, which is set to become “the future of sport” and “a top destination for major sporting events”. The site will  host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in TROJANA as  part of NEOM’s regional plan, and it is probably the first time that the Olympic family has awarded an event to a city that is not really on the map yet.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is activating NEOM as a part of its sports strategy in several areas.
In December 2021, NEOM was named as the main partner of the Spanish Super Cup, while the Red Sea Development Company, which is wholly owned by PIF, will be the main tournament sponsor. NEOM is the Official Global Partner of the Asian Football Conference’s (AFC) national team and club competitions for 2021-2024 as well as Global Partner of the AFC, one of FIFA’s six international confederations.
NEOM has also spread its engagement to motorsport with partnerships with Extreme E, an International Automobile Federation-sanctioned racing series, McLaren Racing and Mercedes-Benz. And in 2022 it laid ground to the first edition of the newly established NEOM Beach Games 2022 that brings together teams from more than 25 countries to compete in five different sports.

But behind the sporting festivities and the glittering face lies another story. NEOM might be billed as “humanity’s next chapter” by the regime but The Guardian has reported that “beneath the glitzy veneer lies a story of threats, forced eviction and bloodshed.” In October 2022 it was also reported that Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced to death three members of the Huwaitat tribe for opposing the eviction of their tribe to make room for the NEOM project.


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