Saudi Arabia’s sports ambitions take center stage as MENA countries eye 2030 World Cup
Al-Monitor Pro Members
Senior Market Research Analyst, Al-Monitor
Dec. 29, 2022
It wasn’t just an upset when Saudi Arabia beat eventual champion Argentina in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup — it was a sign of the times, as the kingdom is pushing to become a global player in the sports world. Although regional neighbors are also developing their sports sectors, Saudi Arabia stands out: from investing billions into LIV Golf, to hosting annual Formula 1 races and buying Newcastle United FC, the country’s sports footprint is growing fast. More big moves are likely coming: Saudi Arabia is widely expected to pursue a joint bid for the 2030 World Cup alongside Egypt and Greece. Winning hosting rights isn’t guaranteed and the effort could also generate significant backlash around the kingdom’s human rights issues, with it already criticized for engaging in “sportswashing” to improve its image. However, another Middle Eastern World Cup looks possible now that Qatar successfully completed its own highly scrutinized tournament. Plus, the timing aligns neatly with Vision 2030, the kingdom’s transformative economic diversification program. Either way, expect Saudi Arabia to make a splash in 2023 as its sporting ambitions continue evolving.
- As part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia aims to develop its sports sector and become a regional center for professional sporting events. Revenue from its sports event industry has been growing 8% annually over recent years and is projected to reach $3.3 billion by 2024, according to an EY report.
- Saudi Arabia has hosted a number of high-profile sporting events in recent years, including international golf tournaments, Formula 1 races, WWE events, and boxing matches. Looking ahead, it will welcome the Asian Winter Games in 2029 and will likely host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
- Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquired Newcastle United in 2021 and there’s speculation the kingdom could produce a buyer for Manchester United and Liverpool too.
- 2021 saw the first Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in Jeddah, marking the beginning of a 15-year contract with Formula 1 reportedly worth $65 million per year and comes with a $40 million per year Saudi Aramco sponsorship deal.
- Then there’s LIV Golf, the controversial new tournament upending the PGA Tour. As the venture’s majority shareholder, the PIF has committed over $2 billion to LIV Golf, which has lured big names including Phil Mickelson. The breakaway league finished its inaugural season in 2022.
- In October 2022, Sport Business Journal reported the PIF is actively recruiting American sports business executives for a new sports-specific company to lead its global efforts and grow tourism. Company objectives include stadium development and commercialization, the acquisition of sports content rights, and investment in global sports leagues, among others.
- That said, Saudi Arabia’s recent moves have still been overshadowed by Qatar’s World Cup, which reportedly cost up to $300 billion and proved lucrative for FIFA: the governing body, which organizes accounts in four-year cycles around each tournament, generated a record $7.5 billion in revenue from 2018 to 2022.
- News surfaced in August 2022 that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece planned to bid together for the 2030 World Cup, with the kingdom reportedly putting up $40 billion to fund the effort. That rumor appeared confirmed in November when Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister told Bloomberg that the kingdom was considering the bid, but a ministry spokesman quickly walked those comments back. That came after Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince MBS was seen attending Qatar’s World Cup opening ceremony alongside FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
- Going forward, expect more countries to co-host the World Cup thanks to an expanded format, with 48 teams competing instead of 32 starting in 2026, when the US, Canada and Mexico host. Bid regulations for 2030 will be published in early 2023, with FIFA choosing a winner in 2024.
- Competition for hosting rights looks competitive: Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile have confirmed a joint effort, alongside another from Spain, Portugal and Ukraine. Morocco is also eying the tournament and could partner with Tunisia and Algeria, while the idea of Israel, Bahrain and the UAE co-hosting has been floated too.
- Elsewhere, news broke in November 2022 that Riyadh’s Al-Nassr FC offered Cristiano Ronaldo a $207 million annual contract to play in the Saudi Pro League. As of this writing the deal with Al-Nassr—and the financials—remain unconfirmed, but landing the 37-year-old superstar would be groundbreaking for the league, which is considered one of Asia’s best. This also comes after the kingdom unveiled Lionel Messi as a tourism ambassador in 2022.
Scenario 1: After LIV upended professional golf, Saudi Arabia targets other disruptive moves
2023 sees Saudi Arabia’s sports investments continue evolving. No longer content to simply buy European football clubs—a favorite purchase among Gulf elite—Saudi Arabia targets more innovative moves around everything from tennis to mixed martial arts. That produces more ventures like LIV in 2023 after the PIF establishes a new sports company with global reach.
Still, LIV’s success isn’t assured and other established sports leagues will be hard to disrupt. A more practical strategy could include investing further into existing professional leagues and securing more local events with staying power, like the Formula 1 deal.
Scenario 2: A Ronaldo-to-Riyadh contract elevates the Saudi Pro League
The attempt to sign a global superstar to a historic deal generates significant exposure and signals Saudi Arabia is serious about leveling up its pro league as part of broader economic ambitions. Even if Ronaldo spurns Al-Nassr, teams in the Saudi Pro League don’t back down from efforts to land more top talent.
That said, plenty of star footballers nearing retirement entertain opportunities to play in less prestigious leagues. Getting Ronaldo would be a coup, but the Saudi Pro League overall still lacks the elite talent found in European counterparts.
Saudi Arabia kicks off 2023 by bidding for the World Cup alongside Egypt and Greece. That effort isn’t a lock to succeed, but it’s a natural move for a country already spending lavishly on modern stadiums and tourism infrastructure. Although this won’t come with the prestige of hosting the tournament solo, Saudi Arabia would still undoubtedly pour money into preparations and attract significant global attention. Obviously, there are factors that could torpedo its bid, but some potential backlash could diminish thanks to an assist from Qatar’s World Cup. FIFA would also stand to generate significant revenues from the kingdom. That said, a failed bid shouldn’t overshadow Saudi Arabia’s larger ambitions. Expect more moves bankrolled by the PIF in 2023. From potentially launching a new global sports company to more bold investments, the kingdom looks poised to advance its plans of becoming a sports powerhouse.
Samuel Wendel is a senior market research analyst with Al-Monitor covering economic, tech and business trends across the Middle East. He has previously served as a journalist with Forbes Middle East and Wamda, where he reported on key industry developments spanning a range of sectors in the region.
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