Saudi Arabia’s Billion-Dollar Football Investment: A Race Against Time


“Reminiscent of the grandeur that usually surrounds stars like Neymar, the arrival of Rivelino in 1978 at Al-Hilal was a spectacle that left an indelible mark. A deal that was inked 45 years prior to Neymar’s move, yet just as opulent. Back then, Rivelino was showered with luxuries including a new Mercedes Benz and a reported $10,000-a-month living allowance. His abode was to be one of Prince Khaled Al Saud’s spare palaces, as recounted by the ‘Washington Post’ at the time.

Fast forward to today, and a similar narrative is unfolding for Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and other football legends who have made their late-career transitions to the Saudi Pro League. A colossal transfer sum of over $830 million for this summer alone, along with eye-popping salaries, paints a picture of opulence and extravagance in the league.

However, this expenditure is not just a whimsical display of wealth or a veiled image overhaul for a country with a checkered human rights reputation. It is a vital piece of the puzzle in Saudi Arabia’s master plan to navigate the post-oil era. This football spending frenzy is closely tied to Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s audacious endeavor to steer the nation away from over-reliance on oil revenues.

Carlo Nohra, the newly appointed chief operating officer of the Saudi Pro League, elaborates: ‘This project is part of a transformation project that’s moving this country where it wants to go.’ While Saudi Arabia has had dalliances with high-profile football signings in the past, this time marks a distinct departure. The 1970s venture, which included Rivelino’s signing, was driven by club members and lacked governmental backing or a sustainable structure.

The current wave is an entirely different proposition. The Saudi Royals are independently funding these football pursuits, not as a hobby but as a crucial component of a broader diversification strategy. With massive investments spanning from futuristic cities like NEOM to entertainment hubs and tourist destinations, the kingdom is in a race against time. OPEC projections indicate that global oil consumption is set to peak around 2040, signaling a decline in oil revenues.

‘Saudi Arabia is up against the clock,’ asserts Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Paris’s Skema Business School. The country’s window to diversify is narrowing, necessitating swift and strategic actions. The push into realms like football, Formula One, golf, and music festivals is not solely about encouraging consumer spending; it’s also tied to the security and stability of the ruling family.

‘Bread and circus’ for the 21st century, as Chadwick describes it. By captivating the public’s attention with a diverse array of entertainment options, Saudi Arabia aims to secure popular support and quell potential dissent. In the backdrop of these grand spectacles lies a complex tapestry woven with economic ambition and political foresight.”

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