Saudi Arabia are signing some of world football’s most desired talent this summer; Cristiano Ronaldo moved at the start of 2023 while Karim Benzema was another high-profile player to join him in the Middle East; four Chelsea players are also in talks with a move to the Saudi Pro League
Saudi Arabia are signing some of world football’s most desired talent this summer – but why is this happening and what is to come?
In 2023 alone, Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Middle Eastern nation on a free transfer, with Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema turning down another season at Real Madrid to join him in the country.
That is by no means the end of it with as many as five Chelsea players set to leave the Premier League side for the Saudi Pro League, with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Bernardo Silva and Heung-Min Son reportedly facing similar offers.
Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Al Nassr earlier this year – and it has started a trend
Saudi Arabia is looking to expand its economy through other industries in order to help guarantee its financial future.
The country is reliant on selling money through oil – that is not going to last forever and they need to diversify their economy. They do this via the PIF – the country’s sovereign wealth investment fund.
Sport is one particular area they are looking to grow in the country and that includes their football league. They want to build their own leisure and entertainment industry and tap into the massive amount of interest there is among the Saudi Arabian population – of which 70 per cent is under 40 – in football.
Football is hugely popular in Saudi Arabia – they were the best supported team at the Qatar World Cup last year let’s not forget and their team beat eventual champions Argentina in the group stages – and they also see it as a way of increasing tourism to the country.
The standard of the league is already quite high and they want to grow it into one of the best in the world, so bringing in some of the best players around is seen as the first step to doing that and making the sport a major industrial pillar in the country.
The rulers of Saudi Arabia have seen all this interest and they’ve thought: ‘instead of other people making money from our population’s interest in sport, let’s make it ourselves and keep the money within our borders.’ It wants to put Saudi Arabia on the map and raise its profile.
What else is Saudi Arabia hoping to achieve?
The country is also hoping to grow its network around the world by investing in football clubs, hence why the PIF bought Newcastle, and draw on the wealth of expertise in the game to grow their own players.
Starting academies and improving the ability of young Saudi Arabian players to improve the national team is also an aim.
This is also about international relationships and influence on the world stage, especially rivalling local competitors in the Middle East. Qatar’s successful hosting of the World Cup has not gone unnoticed.
Saudi Arabia also wants to host a World Cup, preferably in 2030 in what has been mooted as the first ‘World Cup in three continents’ – a joint bid with Greece (Europe) and Egypt (Africa).
Is it a ‘flash in the pan’ – or a long-term aim?
Parallels are obviously being drawn with China and the birth of the Super League in 2004, when suddenly the likes of Brazil star Oscar and West Ham’s Marko Arnautovic moved to the Far East.
What happened in China was their Super League was a direct order from the president. He said that he wanted China to host the World Cup, have a good national team and a domestic league.
But then the ruling Communist Party in China had a change of heart, they didn’t like how this large amount of money was flowing out of China and into Europe and foreigners’ pockets. They decided to end this and loads of different rules were put in place to control how many foreign players you could have in the Chinese Super League.
Like then, Saudi Arabia’s aim is long-term. But Saudi Arabia have more money. And there is the sense they are more serious about it.
So this is the beginning of a process and not something that is going to go away quickly. Sky Sports News has been told that, within the next five years, Saudi Arabia want 100 of the best foreign players playing in its league.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the first to go there, and they tried to get Lionel Messi with a monumental $400m-a-year offer that he turned down to move to MLS instead. But that has not deterred Saudi Arabian clubs, with Ruben Neves on the verge of joining Al Hilal and five Chelsea players including Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech in talks to switch to the state as well.
So will the Saudi Arabian clubs target Erling Haaland? Or Harry Kane? No player has been ruled out in terms of trying to bring them to the Arabian peninsula.
Has Saudi Arabia distorted the transfer market forever?
We have seen this summer, for the first time, that with every single transfer you have to mention the Saudi clubs. Players who you think are not able to be bought, such as Heung-Min Son at Tottenham, there is serious interest in them. Spurs have said that Son is not for sale.
Saudi Arabia has the money to sign any player they want – as long as the player wants to move there.
A lot of players at the very peak of their careers will say no – but I think that has changed a little bit with Wolves’ Neves. He is somebody who Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United are interested in, he is only 26 years old, and at the peak of his career, he has decided to go. Obviously a lot of that is down to money.
So it has changed the transfer market as clubs have serious competition from Saudi Arabia – a very lucrative market has opened up.
Are Chelsea using Saudi Arabia to get round their Financial Fair Play issues after spending £600m?
This is something that has been brought up a lot in the last couple of days. Chelsea have spent £600m over the last couple of transfer windows and they need to balance the books and sell some players. Out of the blue, suddenly the Saudis have come along and said: “We’ll have some of your players and we have £100m to give you.” People from the outside are looking at it and finding it a little strange – suddenly Chelsea have this way of balancing the books.
People have also said that the PIF of Saudi Arabia – who owns the four Saudi Arabia clubs looking to buy the Chelsea players – have made an investment into a Clearlake Capital, a private equity fund who are majority shareholders at Chelsea. People have tried to see if there is something strange going on there.
But from what Sky Sports News have been told, this has nothing to do with it. The sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia invest in lots of private equity funds all over the world and Clearlake has investments in 400 different companies. Chelsea would say there is absolutely no conflict of interest in there whatsoever.