Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo lead Saudi Arabia’s multibillion-dollar makeover | Football News

Saudi Arabia’s tab for using Western popular culture icons to enhance its stature and influence on the world stage could soon increase by another nine figures.
The kingdom are said to be ready to pay Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi $400m a year for the twilight of his career. While that’s a huge sum even by football’s inflated standards, it’s just the latest in a series of moves by Petrostate executives, who invest billions in sports, l art and music.
Saudi Arabia hopes the spending, fueled by excess revenue from its role as the world’s top crude exporter, will excite its burgeoning younger generation and boost its tourism industry. Critics say the efforts are aimed at varnishing an international image battered by a brutal war in Yemen and the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversees this so-called soft power play, which simultaneously spends billions to boost Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities, with what is now the world’s fifth largest arms budget, and pursues a path more opportunistic diplomacy that repeatedly puts Riyadh at odds with Washington.
“It’s a complete realignment of the kingdom,” says Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They want to convince people that it’s a welcoming place, not a threatening one.”
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The scale of its spending has made Saudi Arabia impossible for the global political and business elite to ignore. The kingdom’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the Group of 20 last year, boosted by the highest oil prices in around a decade, and it now boasts the seventh largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, deploying billions both at home and abroad.
Athletic assets were high on the shopping list.
At the end of 2022, Portuguese soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo signed a contract with Al-Nassr FC worth $200 million a year. Just over a year earlier, the Saudi Public Investment Fund led a consortium that acquired English Premier League football club Newcastle United FC for more than £300 million ($373 million). Saudi Arabia is considering a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, after witnessing the tournament’s recent success in neighboring Qatar.
The PIF is also said to have earmarked billions of dollars to fund its LIV Golf tour, which has attracted stars such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, and last year considered a $20 billion bid to add Formula One motor racing 1 to its growing portfolio of sports investments. Elsewhere, venues in and around Jeddah and Riyadh have hosted big-money boxing bouts featuring everyone from heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk to up-and-coming fighters Jake Paul and Tommy Fury.
“Sport is essential to what Saudi Arabia does as it moves towards a world where it is less dependent on oil revenues,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economics at Skema Business School in Paris. .
Saudi Arabia wants tourism to make up 10% of its gross domestic product by 2030, by which time it hopes to attract 100 million visitors a year. In 2022, the kingdom welcomed around 16 million visitors, including tourists, business travelers, people visiting relatives residing in the country and overseas Muslims during the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. said a representative of the Saudi Tourism Authority during a press briefing in Dubai this month. .
To achieve its goal, Saudi Arabia looked beyond professional sports. From an Andy Warhol exhibition, an art biennale and electronic music concerts in the desert, to celebrity chef restaurants in Riyadh and partnerships with top culinary schools, he spends huge amounts on create an entertainment and leisure industry from scratch.
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High-end hotels Aman Resorts and Banyan Tree have already been drawn to Al-Ula, a former oasis town in northwestern Saudi Arabia that is being transformed into a luxury travel destination on a budget. of $35 billion. American pop stars Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and John Legend have all recently performed there.
Phillip Jones, the country’s Royal Commission tourism director for Al-Ula, said that while some artists still refuse to visit the kingdom, the smart money is in Saudi Arabia looking for investment opportunities. “They recognize that this country is about to explode in terms of growth in financial capability,” he said.
And it’s not just the private sector. In recent years, the UK and France have signed cultural cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia.
‘False impression’
The sudden influx of sporting and cultural events is popular in the country, which until recently had rules prohibiting men and women from mixing in public. The sea change puts Saudi Arabia’s strategy on “a much larger scale” than Gulf neighbors like the United Arab Emirates, which have also opened up to Western culture, according to Lina Khatib, director of SOAS Middle East. Institute.
But not everyone buys the hype. Activists say Saudi Arabia is distracting from a poor national record on freedom of expression and other human rights.
“I am happy that these changes are happening, but it gives a false impression of our country,” said Lina Al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and advocacy in Brussels at the human rights group ALQST, about of the MBS soft power plan. She said that once this strategy of using culture, sports and the arts to rehabilitate the Crown Prince’s reputation and woo Western investors and visitors bears fruit, “the violations we report will no longer be effective. “.
Lina Al-Hathloul’s sister, Loujain Al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in 2018 and later imprisoned for inciting regime change and attempting to serve foreign interests. She was released in 2021 but subject to a travel ban.
Al-Ula’s makeover is just one project that fits into MBS’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to overhaul the Saudi economy – something not universally welcomed inside its borders. Members of the Howeitat tribe have been arrested for resisting forced evictions linked to the giant Neom megacity project and face the death penalty, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement on 3 may.
A representative for Neom declined to comment. The Saudi government’s Center for International Communications did not respond to requests for comment.
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Earlier this month, Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, led a large contingent attending the annual Arabian Travel Market exhibition in Dubai. He said it was only the third time that Saudi Arabia participated in the trade fair launched 30 years ago.

Speaking to reporters at a luxury hotel during the event, Hamidaddin sat in front of a large screen projecting images of a smiling Messi in his capacity as Saudi tourism ambassador. The footballer and his family were shown weaving baskets, petting thoroughbred Arabian horses and playing in amusement parks during a visit to the kingdom.
“For those who are skeptical, if you want to make an effort to talk and say things about Saudi Arabia, I encourage you to see it before you make that effort,” Hamidaddin said at the event.


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