In Search of its New Treasure, the Saudi Government is Investing in Football

An article by: Tommaso Baronio

More and more top players from European leagues are moving to Saudi Arabia, swayed by astronomical figures coming straight from the government.

The list gets longer and seems endless. Football player Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was bought for 40 million euros by the Arab team Al Hilal, where he will play for the next few seasons. He is just another sticker added to the album of the Saudi Pro League, the top division of Saudi Arabia. Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Edouard Mendy, Marcelo Brozovic, Roberto Firmino, Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly are just a few of the top players who have taken on Arab teams’ pharaonic offers in recent seasons. The forerunner of true champions was Cristiano Ronaldo who, upon his arrival at Al Nassr, predicted that Saudi football would be ranked among the top five in the world. It was a very surreal forecast from two years ago, but with millions of dollars, the Saudi Pro League is becoming quite a respectable championship.

This is the goal of Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed bin Salman: sports, and football in particular, should become one of the main assets of the country.

The country’s economy is completely dependent on oil exports, which is why a strategic program called “Saudi Vision 2030” was developed to diversify its economy and boost other sectors, such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism, which could be the next treasure of the Arabs. What could present better means of tourism than the Arabs’ favorite sport, namely football?

The country has bid to host the 2030 World Cup and will host the next Club World Cup. In addition, since 2019, if we think of Italy, the Arabs have hosted our Supercup.

However, the most interesting question is to understand wherefrom come the billions that the Saudis spend on buying the best players in European leagues.

They all come from the Government Investment Fund, a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund established in 1971 for the purpose of investing on behalf of the Saudi government, with estimated assets of over $630 billion. The foundation is controlled by bin Salman and has taken control of 75% of the top four Arab clubs: Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, and Al Nassr. With such economic opportunities, tens of millions of dollars spent on football players are definitely not a budget problem.

Investments are clearly not only in Arabia and not only in football. The Arab Fund has bought shares in large companies such as Disney, Meta, Pfizer, Uber, Qualcomm, and Starbucks. In 2021, it bought 80% shares of Newcastle United and can have the economic power estimated by experts to be 50 times that of PSG, which also explains the maxi-deal reached for former Milan player Sandro Tonali.

Furthermore, New York Times sensation informed readers that Lionel Messi, the most popular football player in the world, has probably secured a contract with Saudi Arabia that will allow him to receive $25 million over three years for some commercial appearances, a couple of family vacations in the country, and especially social media posts with a kingdom-approved hashtag. And it all looks fine, but the document also has a condition: Messi should not say anything that denigrates the country.

Another sensation, this time from Daily Mail, confirmed that the sovereign wealth fund will be one of Chelsea’s top, if not the top, investors through Clearlake Capital in the post-Abramovich era.

In short, Saudi Arabia wants to transform itself into a new football capital at any cost in order to find its new gold in sports tourism and wipe away discussions about human rights and protests in the country.


Tommaso Baronio