Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5bn on high-profile international sporting events in a PR bid to bolster its reputation. The figures acquired only apply to deals between entities controlled by the Saudi state, such as the organisation Visit Saudi and NEOM, the body overseeing construction of a futuristic $500bn city in the desert, but not individual members of the Saudi royal family, meaning the $1.5bn figure is very likely a great underestimation of the true scale of the Kingdom’s investments in sports.
The Saudi rulers have invested millions across the sporting world, the report by the human rights organisation Grant Liberty says, from chess championships to golf, tennis and $60m alone on the Saudi Cup, the world’s richest horse-racing event with prize money of $20m.
They include $145m in a three-year deal with the Spanish Football Association, and $15m in appearance fees for a single Saudi International men’s golf tournament. It also includes $33m to host the Saudi Arabian Masters snooker tournament in the Kingdom, and $100m for the boxing match known as “Clash on the Dunes” between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua in 2019. Saudi Arabia also cut a $500m 10-year deal with World Wrestling Entertainment in 2014, one where female performers were banned from appearing until two years ago.
The Saudis have now also entered pending bids for forthcoming events, including $200m for the Tyson Fury Vs Joshua boxing match set to take place later this year, and $180m in sponsorship for Real Madrid through the Qiddiya project, a tourism and entertainment megaproject in Riyadh under the umbrella of “Vision 2030”.
The report details the Saudi Arabian Kingdom’s $650m ten-year deal with Formula One, whose world championships begin this Sunday and for the first time will include a race in the port city of Jeddah.
Grant Liberty’s terms Saudi Arabia’s investments in such spectacles and extravaganzas as “sportswashing” to obscure its dismal human rights record, and tout itself as a new tourist destination.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to use the good reputation of the world’s best loved sports stars to obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture and murder,” said Grant Liberty’s Lucy Rae, who accused Saudi Arabia of “committing human rights abuses on an industrial scale. The world’s leading sports stars might not have asked to be part of a cynical marketing plan to distract the world from the brutality – but that’s what is happening,” she added.
Deals which failed to come to fruition because of indignant outcries, include a $6m offer to footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to be the face of the Kingdom’s tourism body Visit Saudi and an attempted $400m takeover-bid for Newcastle United.