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The Saudi Pro League & Vision 2030


The Saudi Pro League & Vision 2030

Saudi Arabia has been making waves in the sporting world over recent weeks, with the moves that the country has made in the worlds of both football and golf earning them plenty of attention.

The Saudi Pro League has received attention for the absolutely eye-watering financial offers being made to top European players to tempt them to the league, while the controversial attempt at creating a new Saudi-backed breakaway golf tournament (which last week, was confirmed to be going through in the form of a controversial merger between the Saudi LIV tournament and the already-established PGA and DP World Tour organisations) has also garnered major media coverage.

But, why is the Gulf country suddenly becoming so interested and involved in sports, why are they splashing such huge amounts of money in the process, and what does it mean for football?

Why is the Kingdom becoming so involved in sports?

Well, the reason why the Saudi state is becoming so involved in sports is because of something called ‘Vision 2030’. While critics have described aspects of Vision 2030 as an attempt to promote a more favourable image of the country on the international stage, Vision 2030 is primarily Saudi Arabia’s plan to diversify its economy and ‘modernise’ the country.

In an attempt to reduce their dependence on revenue from oil exports and generate new sources of income, the kingdom is investing huge sums of money in many different areas and industries, with sports being one of those sectors. These large investments are being funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund known as PIF, or Public Investment Fund. A sovereign wealth fund is a state-owned fund that is comprised of money generated by the government, and the money in this fund can be used to invest in projects and companies around the world in order to generate further revenue for the state.

With oil being a finite resource, the kingdom has been smart in realising that they will need new sources of income when the oil does eventually runs out. While unconfirmed, there is a reported £600bn+ in the fund, which means that the country can more than afford to spend big on whatever they deem appropriate, which is exactly what they have done. They first showed this back in October of 2021, when a Saudi-led consortium completed a £300m purchase of Premier League club Newcastle United, with the PIF now owning 80% of the Magpies.

The kingdom has added to this further by hosting large sporting events such as high-profile boxing matches, Formula 1 races, WWE events, and both the Spanish Super Cup and Supercoppa Italiana. And now most recently, they have begun to heavily invest in their domestic football league, while also courting huge controversy after surprisingly merging their LIV golf series with both the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.

Will this actually work?

With such a high level of investment, the hope will be that everything eventually does work out. But such a spending spree does invoke memories of and comparisons to the Chinese Super League, which splashed huge amounts of money to bring many European stars to play in the country’s new football league many years ago.

Many will remember that period of time in 2016 when it seemed like Chinese clubs were announcing a new signing almost every day, with the likes of Oscar, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hulk, Yannick Carrasco, Alex Teixeira and Ramires the most notable players to join. The Chinese transfer record was broken three times in the space of just 10 days! Now while Chinese Super League teams were not being financially backed by the Chinese government directly like with Saudi Arabia, Chinese entrepreneurs and businesses were encouraged, and some people would argue pressured, to invest in the operation by the country’s government.

China had big plans for football at the time, with the country’s president wanting to transform the country into a great footballing power both domestically and internationally. The president stated in 2015 that he wanted Chinese football teams to become among the world’s best, and also wanted the country to both host and win a World Cup by 2050.

As part of this plan to grow Chinese football, the league first needed to get people watching it from around the world. And what is the best way to do that? Bring in the biggest names. And what is the best and quickest way to do that? Offer those players eye-watering sums of money. But Chinese clubs were not able to bring in any genuine superstars, because despite the money on offer, targeted players preferred to stay and play in the prestige of the Champions League and the notoriety of Europe’s top five leagues.

But, some players were enticed by the huge sums of money on offer. And that didn’t extend to just players, but also managers. Sven-Goran Eriksson, Manuel Pellegrini, Fabio Capello, Fabio Cannavaro, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas were among the most high-profile managers to make the move to the Far East. And by bringing in these well-known players and managers from Europe, it was hoped that their experience, talent and wealth of knowledge would raise the standards of the Chinese players. Raising the standards of the Chinese players was hoped to ultimately improve the Chinese national team, which was the primary goal of the entire Chinese Super League project.

However, this didn’t happen. For one, bringing in players who were just there for the massive paycheck meant that those players did not have the passion and will to perform well, which meant that the Chinese players were not able to learn anything from them. And because these signings were not the true superstars that got lots of people watching and that the league needed to grow interest in itself, the project stagnated somewhat.

Not seeing any tangible return on their huge investment, the Chinese government began to lose faith in the project entirely. And so because of frustration with the lack of returns, spending was scaled back in different ways. Firstly, a restriction on the amount of foreign players in a matchday squad, then an additional tax on any foreign signings, and a salary cap was then introduced later on. This all contributed to the slow decline of the entire league, and thus, any and all interest in the entire thing was gone. Aided by the financial troubles that most football leagues suffered from in 2020, many of those clubs are now in huge financial trouble and some have even gone out of business completely. The Chinese Super League is essentially dead.

How Will The Saudi Pro League Learn from The CSL’s Mistakes?

It seems like the Saudi league will not go this way. There is a huge will to see this entire process through and the Saudis seem content to play a long waiting game, knowing that their big-money strategy will very likely bear results. With such solid backing to the tune of potential billions by the Saudi government, it is much more likely that this venture will see results and succeed.

Saudi Arabia has a further advantage in that it is more of a “football” country than China is, with the sport much more popular in the Gulf state. The country has also qualified for six World Cups in comparison to China’s one, qualifying for four consecutive editions between 1994 and 2006 and reaching the round-of-16 in 1994, while their scalp of eventual winner Argentina at Qatar 2022 will live long in the memory of the population.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s domestic league is actually watched by a large majority of the population and some of the larger teams have fairly big followings, which is again something that the Chinese project didn’t. Further adding to the notion that this project will be more successful is the fact that the Saudi league is actually attracting genuine big-name stars that global audiences will almost certainly tune in to watch, something that China was not able to do.

The legendary Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in January, while Karim Benzema announced a similar transfer to Al-Ittihad earlier last week. Having one of the greatest football players of all time and the current Ballon d’Or holder is a massive coup for the league, and will definitely ensure that more people will tune in to watch.

These two initial big-name signings are almost certainly going to be supplemented with more signings, with a long list of European stars now being linked with moves to the league. While Lionel Messi won’t be making the move, 2018 World Cup winner N’Golo Kante has been mooted for a move, with a big-money agreement with Al-Ittihad reportedly very close. In addition, Alexis Sanchez, Luka Modric, Hugo Lloris, Roberto Firmino, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Wilfried Zaha, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets have all reportedly been offered big-money deals in recent weeks. When comparing that slate of names to the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hulk, Gervinho, Odion Ighalo and Ramires, which league would you rather tune in to?

And therein lies the answer to why Saudi Arabia’s project is much more likely to succeed. The plan is to eventually lessen the emphasis on signing ageing superstars in a few years, by which point the league should have many more younger names that can draw attention to the league organically, rather than the reliance on names.

And in another big move that will also draw positive results, an announcement made just this week stated that the PIF had bought majority stakes in all the country’s 4 biggest clubs – Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ahli. Previously, football clubs in Saudi Arabia have been under state ownership by the country’s Ministry of Sport, but the move is part of a plan to eventually privatise the clubs by selling them to other companies and investors once they are notorious enough, while the move has also been described as an opportunity to unleash various commercial opportunities including sponsorships and further squad investment that will also raise the league’s revenues, and should hopefully increase participation in the sport at grassroots level.

Having four clubs stronger than the rest of the league is also a smart move because it will help to create a sense of competition and rivalry amongst all of them such as is similar in some of Europe’s big leagues, which would help in attracting the attention of broadcasters and therefore potentially having matches shown more frequently.

With clubs now being able to spend on bringing in big names, it should improve the level of the league as a whole and make the product more attractive to watch, and with time, the league could potentially be on the same level as something like France’s Ligue 1 or Portugal’s Primeira Liga in terms of talent and viewing figures.

What is this all leading to?

Ultimately, all of this will help Saudi Arabia in achieving what is thought to be its ultimate goal, which is hosting a World Cup.

According to some reports, it was a great source of embarrassment that their small neighbour Qatar became the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup instead of the Saudis, but they will still press on with plans to host the next available tournament. They have been heavily linked with a bid to host the 2030 edition of the World Cup, which would be a very nice fit for the entire Vision 2030 name and project. However, 2034 is also an option were the state not able to secure the 2030 tournament amid very strong competition from other countries.