Boxing purists may argue over the sporting value of a fight between a reality TV star and a former YouTube prankster. But the commercial value of the massively hyped event in February 2023 was clear for both the contestants (Tommy Fury and Jake Paul shared a prize purse worth over US$13 million (£10.7 million) and the country which staged it – Saudi Arabia.
For while Qatar’s hosting of the Fifa men’s World Cup grabbed the world’s attention in 2022, its larger, noisier neighbour is now muscling in with even bigger sporting plans.
Saudi Arabia’s financial might – and the level of its ambition – are like Qatar on steroids. The kingdom is widely expected to launch a joint bid for the 2030 FIFA men’s World Cup, and is desperate to increase its presence in international sport.
So far, it has been pretty successful. In football, Saudi Arabia was recently chosen to host this year’s Fifa Club World Cup and will stage the Asian Cup in 2027. The country’s tourism authority has also reportedly signed a deal to sponsor this year’s FIFA women’s World Cup in Australia.
Then there is the ownership (via the country’s sovereign wealth fund) of Newcastle United FC, and suggestions that Saudi Arabia was interested in bidding for Manchester United and Liverpool. One of football’s most famous stars, Christiano Ronaldo, is currently playing for the Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, where he is said to earn around £500,000 a day.
The scale of Saudi Arabia’s investment is clear enough. But it is worth remembering that this hugely expensive outlay is not for reasons of vanity or largesse. It is a carefully constructed strategy in response to the kingdom’s pressing economic, political and social challenges.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as “MBS”) understands the value of sport being deployed as a policy instrument to secure the long-term future of the Gulf state.
For while Saudi Arabia has vast wealth at its disposal (its wealth fund holds assets worth over US$600 billion, much of it is derived from oil and gas. And as the world strives to move away from carbon fuels, the Saudi economy finds itself overspecialised and exposed to risk.
Investing in sport overseas is one way of addressing this vulnerability, and diversifying the economy. But it is the scale of Saudi Arabia’s domestic spending on sport that sets it apart, as seen in the construction of Qiddiya, a sport and entertainment mega project designed to attract inward investment and overseas tourists.
The transformation process is also political. At home, the Saudi government continues to be mindful of events across the Arab world that led to popular protests in 2010 and 2011. With almost 70% of its population aged under 35, fears of social unrest are tangible and real.
By focusing on the promotion of sport, entertainment and leisure, MBS and his officials are specifically addressing the interests and demands of Saudi Arabia’s young consumers as a means of averting disaffection among them.
Through the likes of Newcastle United ownership and a stake in the McLaren F1 team, Saudi Arabia is also seeking international legitimacy and wants to project soft power and build diplomatic relations.
Public health is another issue in Saudi Arabia, with increasing levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. As is the case in many other countries, sport is being deployed as a policy instrument to encourage a healthier lifestyle.
The use of sport across all these issues, combined with the scale of state spending on it, is not without its critics of course. Domestically, more conservative members of the population remain concerned about the changes that have been instigated, such as allowing women to participate. Others have noted how large state influence on economic activity stifles creativity, enterprise and overall growth.
Internationally, Saudi Arabia is regularly accused of sportswashing its way out of human rights concerns – an attempt to distract from regular executions, the war in Yemen and the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Others contend that, despite the country’s supposed transformation, the rights of women and girls are still being denied, and that dissidents are being suppressed.
Yet within the kingdom there is considerable excitement about the country’s emerging status as a sporting superpower – and MBS looks unlikely to stray from the path he has set. The country’s considerable spending power makes it appear certain that Saudi Arabia will soon become one of the biggest players in international sport, delivering a knockout blow to the kingdom’s many critics.