The Middle East’s Sports Push: Soccer Edition
How the Middle East has been spending big and bending the rules just enough to see success in the soccer landscape
By: Alejandro Echeverria
Jan. 29, 2023
Photo Credit: Associated Press
What is “Sportswashing”?
In 2015, the term “sportswashing” was coined for the first time. This refers to the use of international sports to clean a state’s public image. Going further, it implies that these states invest in sports to distract their target audiences from any of their faults.
As reported by The Guardian, in November of 2016, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the kingdom’s General Sports Authority to create a Sports Development Fund to bolster sports activity in the country. Following heavy investment in various areas of the sport industry, both Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole have been accused of “sportswashing.”
Historically, this region’s economy has been built around their oil reserves. Now, this investment into sports gives these countries other long-term revenue streams once they can no longer depend on their main source of income. However, critics argue that these investments serve as a way to hide various human rights violations committed in this region, in hopes of changing the perception many foreigners may have of these countries.
Let’s get into a few areas in the sports world where the Middle East has made its presence felt.
Investment Into Soccer/Football
European Team Ownership:
In 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group, owned by Sheikh Mansour, bought a controlling stake in Manchester City FC, a much smaller club at the time to storied rivals Manchester United, for about $350M. After immense amounts of funding and incoming player transfers, City has been revolutionized into a powerhouse in the Premier League, having won numerous titles and recently being named the #1 most searched soccer team in the world in 2022.
Mansour’s ambitions didn’t end in Manchester. In 2013, the City Football Group was created as a holding company which would look to administer various football clubs. Since then, the Group has expanded its club ownership around the world, owning teams like New York City FC, Melbourne City FC, Yokohama F. Marinos, Montevideo City Torque, Girona, Sichuan Jiuniu, and Mumbai City FC. With ownership stakes in clubs across the world, Mansour secured the U.A.E’s influence on the sport and has opened up various opportunities for the region to engrain themselves within the space.
In 2011, having seen Mansour’s success, Qatar Sports Investments’ Nasser Al-Khelaifi adopted a similar strategy when he spearheaded their decision to purchase an initial 70% stake in French giant, Paris-Saint Germain (PSG), for upwards of $50 million. Similarly, Al-Khelaifi and QSI provided the club with huge amounts of funding, securing big-name players for ground-breaking figures. Since then, PSG has become a global brand and constant threat to the best clubs in the world. Securing a revolutionary partnership with Jordan Brand is just one of the many strategic ways in which QSI has invested into ensuring their brand is globally renowned.
Having seen this continued success, storied Premier League side Newcastle United was purchased on Oct. 7, 2021 for over $405 million, by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium headed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. The group has invested heavily into its team and has already seen an increase in performance and popularity. As evidenced by the three teams above, owning and pumping money into soccer teams is a wealth creation method which these countries seem to have the formula to.
World Cup Qatar 2022:
One of the more recent instances where we have seen “sportswashing” in full effect was last year’s World Cup in Qatar. Following accusations of corrupt activities and unpaid labor for the construction of their stadiums, the world was shocked and wary of what would happen at the first World Cup ever to be hosted by a Middle Eastern nation.
However, with incredible performances on the field and a heroic ending for the world’s best, Lionel Messi and Argentina, many of these concerns seemed to be pushed aside by those same people. Despite this, opposers of the World Cup in Qatar highlight how quickly the government went back on its word regarding their ban on alcohol, the injustices committed to supporters of the LGBTQ+ community, and the reports of deaths surrounding the construction of the stadium..
Saudi Pro League/Al Nassr:
Following the World Cup, the Middle East continued to show its commitment to investing in soccer when Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr announced they would be signing Portuguese superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, for a fee of around $75 million per year. The signing showed how seriously the kingdom was taking soccer, especially because this was an unprecedented contract in the soccer/football world.
Soon after signing Ronaldo, Al Nassr saw its social media accounts gain incredible amounts of traction, with their Instagram having gone from 853,000 followers to 12.4 million and counting. This huge leap in followers shows how big of an impact signing one of the greatest players of all time can have on a team and league as a whole, growing its popularity around the world and creating more reason for tourism in the region.
These examples are just a few of the ways we have seen “sportswashing” throughout the Middle East. Over the years, the Middle East has also invested heavily in golf through LIV Golf, combat sports through the WWE, UFC, and major boxing fights, Formula 1, and a number of other sports. As the region continues to build both the infrastructure and popularity of sports at a rapid pace, it will be interesting to see which morals and laws they bend in order to further expand and appeal to the Western market.