From heavyweight boxing to horse racing, from wrestling events to a grand prix; Saudi Arabia’s association with sport has become an integral, and contentious, part of its efforts to rebrand.
But its latest play – taking a majority stake in Newcastle United Football Club – is the kingdom’s boldest move yet, placing it firmly on the world’s sporting stage, and squarely in the crosshairs of its critics.
The takeover is Riyadh’s first major acquisition of an overseas sports team and first foray into the world of high-profile associations with top-flight football – a power play pioneered by its Gulf partners.
As Qatar picked up Barcelona FC and Paris St Germain, and nearby Abu Dhabi took control of Manchester City, Saudi Arabia had looked on enviously and waited for an opportunity.
So, when Carla DiBello, a close friend of Yassir al-Rumayyan, the chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund (PIF), suggested the Newcastle deal, Rumayyan took it to the fund’s chairman and Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Approval was granted quickly. The chance to match the neighbours was too good to miss, and the £300m price tag – less than the reported €400m (£340m) price tag of a villa that Prince Mohammed bought in France – was small change for the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund.
Talks with the PIF and Newcastle’s owners have dragged on for over a year. Only after satisfying regulators that the kingdom would not be involved in the running of the club has an end to Mike Ashley’s 14-year tenure seemed likely.
But the association between a Premier League football team and a state seen as verging on pariah status by its many critics has more hurdles to jump before it can pass the public sniff test.
In accepting the Saudi state as an owner, Newcastle is taking on quite some baggage. Agreeing to such a takeover could be construed as acquiescing to a human rights record that has been condemned by rights organisations.
The butchering of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three years ago, the jailing and widely reported abuse of rights activists in Riyadh and a hardline intolerance of dissent generally has made Prince Mohammed an unpopular figure in Joe Biden’s administration in the US and in parts of Europe.
His critics, among them Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, contend that the use of sports is a convenient mask for things the Kingdom wants people to forget about and that decisions like the Newcastle purchase are made with “sportswashing” in mind.
Dig a little deeper and the motives are more primal – a Middle Eastern version of keeping up with the Joneses, a world where status is everything, is a key driver of the push to engage with global sport.
Appearing relevant on the world stage is essential, especially when your neighbours have trumped you. And conspicuously displaying your wealth isn’t far behind.
Top flight football had been wildly popular in the kingdom even before societal shackles were dropped by its new regime. Saudi Arabia has a successful national team and the English Premier League is the most popular of the European football competitions.
The seeming embrace of the hard-charging, big-drinking culture behind Newcastle United may seem incongruous to a conservative and rigid country. And, in many ways it would have been, before Prince Mohammed entrenched his new guard and changed the nature of the country itself.
Cafes in Riyadh and Jeddah regularly teem with men and women watching football. The new accommodation is that personal freedoms – watching what you choose and choosing your company – is no longer forbidden.
Under the heir to the throne’s regime, embracing aspects of western culture that may have been frowned upon five years ago is no longer taboo. Anything seen to threaten the seat of power is treated very differently.