From F1 To CR7, Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s Sports Shopping Spree

Saudi Arabia emerged as the solitary bidder for the 2034 World Cup, marking a significant triumph that follows a series of high-profile sports acquisitions.

The conservative Gulf monarchy, frequently criticized for its human rights record, is aiming to enhance its reputation, attract tourists and investments, and diversify its economy beyond oil.

Here are some of the steps that have propelled Saudi Arabia into the sports limelight:

In a surprising move, Saudi Arabia, a predominantly desert nation with scorching summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), was selected last October to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.

The event, which has already faced opposition from environmental activists, will take place at NEOM, a $500 billion mega-city currently under construction, with plans for a year-round winter sports complex.

Five years later, in the same year as the World Cup, the capital city of Riyadh will host the 2034 Asian Games, an Olympic-scale multi-sport event. Hosting the Olympics is the kingdom’s “ultimate goal,” according to Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, who spoke to AFP last August.

In 2021, the glamorous world of Formula 1 arrived in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea known as a gateway to Mecca, with a night race along the coastline. This year, four grand prix races will be held in the wealthy Gulf region.

However, the 2022 edition of the race was marred by an attack from Houthi rebels in neighboring war-torn Yemen, causing nearby oil facilities to emit black smoke during practice sessions.

Saudi Arabian clubs, backed by the Public Investment Fund sovereign wealth fund, have embarked on an extraordinary spending spree this year. It all began with Al-Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in January, on a two-and-a-half-year deal reportedly worth 400 million euros.

This signing opened the floodgates, with Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema joining Al-Ittihad, Neymar leaving Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain for Al-Hilal, and a stream of other veteran stars making their way to the Saudi Pro League.

In October 2021, even before the Pro League’s acquisitions, a Saudi-funded consortium successfully acquired English Premier League club Newcastle United following a lengthy regulatory process.

Fans of the long-dormant “sleeping giant,” who had been at odds with the previous owner for years, celebrated by wearing Arab headdresses at St. James’s Park stadium. Since then, Newcastle has experienced a resurgence, qualifying for this season’s Champions League.

In addition, Saudi Arabia will host the Club World Cup in December, as well as the 2027 Asian Cup, which now serves as a trial run for the World Cup. The kingdom is also bidding to host the women’s Asian Cup in 2026.

Saudi money has also revolutionized professional golf after upstart LIV Golf, following a legal battle with established tours such as the US PGA and European Tour, unexpectedly merged with its rivals in June.

The merger, set to be finalized at the end of December, comes after a two-year war during which LIV Golf poached players for large sums, prompting the US and European tours to declare them ineligible for certain tournaments, including the Ryder Cup for the European circuit.

Former world number one Dustin Johnson has been one of the main beneficiaries, earning $35 million in prize money during the inaugural season, in addition to a reported $150 million just for agreeing to participate.

Saudi Arabia has become a prominent destination for high-profile fights, with the latest being world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury’s split-decision victory over MMA star Francis Ngannou in a non-title bout on Saturday.

Another British heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, has fought twice in Saudi, earning sizable paychecks each time while fending off criticism over alleged sportswashing.

Joshua secured his revenge against Andy Ruiz of the United States at King Abdullah Sports City in December 2019, before returning in August last year and being outperformed by Ukrainian maestro Oleksandr Usyk.

This December, the Next Gen ATP Finals, featuring the most promising young male players, will be held in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia was also reported to be the leading contender for hosting this year’s WTA Finals, but the event was ultimately awarded to Cancun, Mexico.

Last year, Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil exporter and one of the wealthiest companies, became a major sponsor of major events organized by the International Cricket Council, including the men’s and women’s one-day and T20 World Cups.

Since 2020, the Dakar Rally, previously held between Paris and the Senegalese capital, has taken place on Saudi Arabia’s challenging terrain.

The 2021 and 2022 editions of the rally were won by Saudi-owned horses, with last year’s victory secured by the 66-1 longshot Emblem Road. This year, Japanese outsider Panthalassa emerged victorious in February.



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