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Saudi Arabia Steps into the Sports World Amidst Controversy

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a news conference at the closing of the G20 virtual summit, in the capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 22, 2020. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

Over the course of the past year, the Saudi Arabian sports market has grown in popularity, but not without controversy. For most of its history, the richest country in the Middle East was not involved in sports. However, in October of 2021, Saudi Arabia took a big step into the sporting world by buying Newcastle Football Club in the English Premier League for $409 million via the Public Investment Fund (PIF). PIF is Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, and has an estimated total of nearly $800 million in assets. 

Fast forward to early January of 2023: Riyadh team, Al Nassr, signed Cristiano Ronaldo until 2025 on a deal worth $210 million per year. That deal kickstarted the wave of Saudi signings. On July 5th of 2023, PIF bought 75% of the big four in Saudi Arabia: Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Itihad, and Al Ahli. The Saudis bought superstars from Europe like Karim Benzema, Neymar, and Sadio Mańe.  But all of these big money moves have been overshadowed by one problem, sportswashing. 

While it is true that Saudi Arabia is trying to advance their own national soccer league by bringing in popular players that previously played for some of the best clubs in Europe, many believe that an underlying reason for their introduction of world-class talent is for the act of sportswashing. 

Sportswashing is a term that refers to the act of using the popularity and attention tied with sports to cover up a poor reputation regarding human rights. As of July 26, 2023 Saudi Arabia has spent upwards of $6 billion on sports deals and player contracts since early 2021.  

One of the first cases that brought more attention to Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights practices was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was a Washington Post journalist who was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul of 2018. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was accused of ordering and orchestrating the assassination of Khashoggi on October 15 of 2018. By November 16, 2018 the United States Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the assassination. 

A year prior to his assassination, Khashoggi was a successful journalist in Saudi Arabia and even had ties with the royal family. In 2017 Khashoggi fled to America in a self-imposed exile where he started to write a monthly column for the Washington Post chastising the Saudi Arabian Government. This is just one incident that Saudi Arabia is trying to cover up by introducing new star studding athletic talent.  


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Braylen Pendleton
Braylen Pendleton, Production Editor
Theo Arnold
Theo Arnold, Staff Writer

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