Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia: A game of one-upmanship

One-upmanship in Middle Eastern sports just wretched up a notch as superstar Cristiano Ronaldo joins state-owned Saudi football club Al Nassr FC for reportedly a whopping US$241 million over 2.5 years.

Mr. Ronaldo’s transfer, involving the biggest football salary in history, beats Qatar-owned Paris St. Germain’s acquisition in 2017 of Brazilian player Neymar for US$200 million, at the time the world’s most expensive transfer.

The timing of Mr. Neymar’s transfer was significant. It demonstrated Qatar’s resilience at a moment when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spearheaded a failed diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state in a bid to force it to align its foreign and media policies with those of its main distractors.

Contrary to perceptions, Mr. Ronaldo’s move is about more than distracting from Saudi Arabia’s abominable human rights record. Human rights are just one of the kingdom’s reputational problems, even if they are what attracts the most attention.

Saudi Arabia seeks to alter an image entrenched over seven decades of a secretive kingdom that used its oil wealth to globally promote an ultra-conservative, supremacist, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

In a bid to take Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, diversify its economy, cater to the aspirations of a young population, and create building blocks for the survival of his regime, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has introduced significant social and economic reforms while tightening the political leash.

Mr. Ronaldo contributes to that, even if he, at 37, is near the end of his playing career. Sports, particularly soccer, the most popular form of entertainment, is a pillar of Mr. Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

It boosts sports as part of the development of a modern entertainment industry in a country in which that was non-existent before the crown prince’s rise in 2015, and it contributes to a public health policy in which exercise and sports play a key role.

Mr. Ronaldo also enhances Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to replace smaller Gulf states, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as the hub for anything and everything in the Gulf, whether it’s sports or the regional seat of foreign multinationals and corporations.

To achieve his goal, Mr. Bin Salman needs to project Saudi Arabia as a modern, internationally competitive nation with a national rather than a religious identity. Boosted by Mr. Ronaldo’s stardom, soccer, a sport that evokes tribal-like loyalties and nationalist passions, is a perfect tool to accomplish that.

In addition, Mr. Ronaldo’s usefulness to Mr. Bin Salman will likely outlive the aging player’s footballing career.

For the rest of this decade, he will likely be what David Beckham was to the Qatar World Cup, an ambassador for Saudi Arabia’s joint bid with Egypt and Greece for the hosting rights of the 2030 tournament, particularly if the bid is successful.

Mr. Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr could be an initial step in a more bold effort to position Saudi Arabia at the core of Middle Eastern sports.

As sports journalist John Duerden suggests, a next step could involve carving out of the Asian and African football confederations a separate regional Arab association as the newest constituent element of world soccer body FIFA.

Twelve of the Asian Football Federations’s (AFC) 47 member associations are Arab, and so are seven North African affiliates of the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) 54 members. The AFC counting does not include non-Arab Iran and Israel, which was expelled in 1974 and is part of UEFA, FIFA’s European leg.

Creating an Arab association would have a greater chance of success than Saudi Arabia’s failed attempt in 2018 to form an organisation of Southwest Asian football associations that would have included Arabs and South Asians.

However, with Gulf states, this decade dominating the hosting of top competitions and Saudi Arabia seeking to squeeze out Qatar and the UAE as regional sports hubs, the thought of an Arab football federation that secedes from the AFC and CAF is not far-fetched.

Next month, Morocco will host the FIFA Club World Cup. Qatar will host the Asian Cup a bit later in 2023. Saudi Arabia is certain to host the 2027 Cup.

Doha is back in the picture as home to the 2030 Asian Games; in 2034, it’s Riyadh’s turn.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are considered FIFA favourites for the 2030 World Cup, and a Moroccan pitch is possible. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is bidding for the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup.

On the scale of the World Cup, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are separately considering bids for the 2036 Olympics but could join forces. Likewise, Egypt and Turkey are mulling their separate candidacies.

Add to that Manchester United’s talks with Saudi and Qatari investors in a city whose other major club, Manchester City, is owned by the UAE.

Saudi sports minister Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said he would support a Saudi private-sector acquisition of Manchester United. The Saudi state is precluded from buying a second Premier League club after its sovereign wealth fund purchased Newcastle United.

In an interview with BBC sports, Mr. Al Faisal argued that his country’s sports strategy was producing results.

Mr. Ronaldo “would benefit the league, the sports eco-system in Saudi and will inspire the youth for the future. The numbers don’t lie – when you look at participation in boxing, from six gyms in 2018 to 57 gyms today. A 300% participation increase, 60% are women, which was a shock for us. When you see appetite from the youth, men, and women, they learned from it,” Mr. Al Faisal said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.