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Game Changer: How Sports are Part of Saudi Arabia’s Bigger Plan

Image via Eoin Clarke/Golffile

In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, announced his “Vision 2030” plan, an effort to revolutionize Saudi Arabia’s economy and elevate its position on the world stage. Among the targeted areas, Saudi Arabia has aggressively expanded into the world of sports: buying sports clubs, putting on expensive events such as boxing and soccer matches, and even financing the LIV Golf league. In the past, nations who have participated in similar projects—Qatar in 2022, for instance—have been blamed for “sportswashing,” the use of sports to improve the international reputation of the country. In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, their aspirations go far beyond sports. In the context of the “Vision 2030” plan, Saudi Arabia’s sport-related projects, such as LIV Golf and the Kingdom’s nascent effort to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, fit into a much larger campaign of development. Saudi Arabia’s sports efforts are significant because they are fundamentally linked to the future of the Kingdom, playing a big role in its future economic and political success.

The sheer scope and ambition of “Vision 2030” is almost difficult to comprehend. The plan was initially launched to insulate the Kingdom against the decreasing importance of oil. While oil still represents 40 percent of the nation’s GDP, it is projected to heavily decline in value over the coming decades. To protect against this decline, the Kingdom plans to invest in other areas, such as sports, to create a “vibrant society” and a “thriving economy,” according to the goals listed in the “Vision 2030” plan. This diversification requires a complete change in the way that Saudi Arabia does business, shifting away from sole reliance on its oil reserves. The Kingdom is focusing much more on integrating itself into the global economic system, including forming closer relationships with Western businesses. While this diversification can take many forms, Saudi Arabia sees sports as a centerpiece of its plan.

One of the most important investments into sports is the Saudi-funded LIV Golf tour. In recent years, the Kingdom has used its sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, to create the upstart golf tour and invested in it aggressively. The tour’s main growth strategy centers around paying superstar golfers to join. For example, reports state that star golfer Phil Mickelson was paid about $200 million to join the tour in 2022. The tour is a prime example of how Saudi Arabia is using sports as more than entertainment. From an economic standpoint, the Kingdom sees LIV Golf as another asset in their portfolio of investments, hoping to eventually profit from lucrative TV rights deals and gain valuable access into the entertainment and media sectors in the United States.

In addition to these economic incentives, LIV Golf is also a political move. In the 2023 season, for example, the LIV Golf tour will host three tournaments at golf courses owned by former President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Trump and his allies have already begun to make positive statements about the Kingdom. At one point, Trump even minimized Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations in a New York Times interview, saying, “We have human rights issues in this country, too.” Clearly, LIV Golf is a vehicle for Saudi Arabia to form a close relationship with Trump. Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, in which he intends to rerun, this investment could be used to create a relationship with the United States that bleeds into the political sphere. Beyond the United States, Saudi Arabia has also invested in English soccer club Newcastle United. With this $400 million purchase, the Kingdom gains an important entertainment foothold in the UK, while projecting its willingness to spend now and in the future. With LIV Golf and Newcastle United, it is clear that Saudi Arabia sees sports as an important aspect of its international dealings.

Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is frequently accused of “sportswashing,” projects such as LIV Golf have often paradoxically harmed the Kingdom’s reputation. According to Professor Amy Bass, who specializes in sports studies at Manhattanville College, the basic motivation is straightforward: “Sportswashing at its most basic level is trying to seek public approval through the distraction of games.” However, the public reaction to the Saudi efforts has focused on the negatives of the Saudi regime rather than being distracted by them. Since its inception, LIV Golf and Saudi Arabia have been heavily criticized by rival golfers, protesters, and national politicians. For example, in his reaction to an LIV Golf tournament in Oregon, American Senator Ron Wyden heavily criticized the Kingdom for its human rights transgressions. Similarly, the Saudi purchase of Newcastle United has injected criticism about the Kingdom directly into the bloodstream of UK politics. While some fans celebrated the purchase, many political groups condemned the move. The Premier League, the league that Newcastle United competes in, even temporarily blocked the takeover. While the Kingdom’s “sportswashing” efforts have met a number of roadblocks, however, LIV Golf and Newcastle United are still solid investments for other reasons. While these sports projects may temporarily hurt the Kingdom’s public reputation, they are helping the country economically and politically.

As 2030 nears, the Kingdom’s next target investment is the FIFA Men’s World Cup. Almost a decade before the tournament, Saudi Arabia is already weaponizing billions of dollars, paying players such as Lionel Messi to serve as ambassadors and even offering to pay for Greek and Egyptian infrastructure projects as long as these two nations agree to join the Saudi bid. De facto leader Bin Salman’s strong desire to hold the World Cup shows how his desires mix sports and broader geopolitics. A Saudi Arabian World Cup, symbolically held on the same year as the culmination of the “Vision 2030” project, would go far beyond a mere sports event, positioning the Kingdom at the center of both the sports world and, it is their hope, the international order.

“Vision 2030” is a hugely ambitious program, aiming for nothing less than the total transformation of one of the richest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia sees sports as an important part of its plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil and push itself into international and political prominence. If the country’s investments pay off financially and politically, it will have huge implications for the global community. It seems that buying an English soccer team and hosting a golf tournament may, in fact, be a jumping-off point for an economic and political revolution. While sports are often considered to be a harmless, apolitical source of entertainment, in this case, they must be viewed as a potential game changer for Saudi Arabia and for the global order.