Thomas: The Saudi Arabian invasion of sports

Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor

At 1:15 pm on Friday afternoon, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft from Paris landed at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The jumbo-jet has two decks, and can hold a cargo capacity of 128.5 tons, or up to 660 passengers. However, for this journey, the plane was transporting one: Neymar.

The Brazilian soccer star carries one of those singular names that transcends sport itself. It is instantly recognizable to those without any interest in the sport. He has 212 million Instagram followers, 55 million more than LeBron James. If somebody out there is worthy of such a gaudy display of wealth, then maybe it’s him.

At 31 years old Neymar is still in the prime of his career, and after a six-year stint playing in Paris, soccer fans around the globe awaited his free-agent decision. It was unlikely that he would continue with Paris-Saint-Germain, and many fans believed he was destined to return to FC Barcelona, or perhaps play in England with Manchester United.

No matter where he went, his bleached-blonde hair and flashy foot skills were going to be on television every weekend, bound to captivate fans around the world.

But that’s why he was in the Middle East. He was signing a two-year contract with the Saudi Pro League club Al-Hilal. He was forgoing his unmatched level of superstardom on the biggest stage to play in a league and country that one year ago, was completely irrelevant in the soccer world. This decision is not only bad for the world of sports, but for the victims of gulf-states’ atrocities.

A rapidly escalating trend has seen the Saudi Public-Investment-Fund, or PIF, use its unlimited riches from the oil trade to invest in global sports. Besides Neymar, they’ve bought the talents of other soccer stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Sadio Mané. The Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, held annually in Jeddah, pays $55 million to host the event. That is more than double the hosting fees paid by traditional and historic tracks across Europe, and it pushed historic tracks in Germany off of the calendar.

In the fall of 2021, the Saudi PIF completed their purchase of English soccer club Newcastle United. When the purchase was finalized, Newcastle was in last place of the Premier League. One season and 250 million pounds worth of investment later, they finished in fourth place.

But why would they do this? The answer is simple. Sportswashing. It’s when countries with a questionable reputation on the international stage try to buy back the goodwill of foreigners, as well as their own people.

There’s no doubt that these purchases are legal. The PIF is free to spend its own money on what it sees fit. But is it good for the fans? Ask the Newcastle fans who celebrated the PIF’s takeover by attending the first game under new ownership wearing traditional red-and-white-checkered Muslim headdresses. An entire fanbase turned a blind eye to the Saudi government’s crimes in an instant because their favorite team was going to start winning.

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia has a laundry list of controversies and human rights violations. The PIF is backed by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmann, who is widely believed to have been behind the execution of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Dissidents are routinely tortured and killed by government officials, so that they can uphold their rigorous authoritarian regime.

Just two days ago, a report by the Human Rights Watch detailed how guards in the Saudi Arabian border patrol fired on and killed hundreds of asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Yemen, many of whom were women and children.

Ten hours northward, Neymar spent his weekend shaking hands and smiling in front of the Saudi Arabian flag.

These are the images that the Saudi PIF want the whole world to see. Their global reputation has been undone by systematically committing human rights violations and becoming the posterboy for modern-day dictatorships. Their solution is to dangle their money in front of those with the influence to change that. Neymar will reportedly earn over $500,000 for every social media post that promotes the country, similar to a deal that PIF-controlled entities have made with Lionel Messi.

As of this June, the four largest clubs in the country, including Al-Hilal, are now owned by the Saudi PIF. This blatant conflict of interest demonstrates the superficiality of this song and dance being put on by the crown prince. Imagine if the Pirates were owned and operated by the same people who own and manage the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers. Players flow between these teams not based on a desire to win games but a collusion to create the most powerful product on television.

As long as this is in place, the Saudi Pro League isn’t any more real than the theatrics of professional wrestling.

Fans in Europe and South America bring a burning passion and love for their teams, something the history-lacking and cultureless clubs in Saudi Arabia can’t begin to match.

In 2021, when Manchester United attempted to join the Super League, which would have undoubtedly benefited their club, fans protested because it would have done so at the expense of smaller clubs. In a hectic riot, they stormed the stadium, causing the postponement of that day’s game.

They fought against their team’s best interests and on behalf of the traditional order of the sport they love. These passionate fans are being abandoned by Neymar, Ronaldo and every athlete and organization that prioritizes blood-soaked oil money over their supporters. Fans whose love and passion for the sport built it into what it is today are seeing their stars abandon them for a league that is unnatural, from its inception to its structure.

Sportswashing is not only bad for sports, but for the world as a whole. It’s a massive PR move by people who commit atrocities on an extreme level. Saudi Arabia is paying Neymar to show his 212 million followers the jumbo jets and unlimited wealth that springs from oil wells in the desert. They will use this flow of cash to cleanse the blood from their hands. Not by righting their wrongs, or even putting a stop to them, but by distracting the world with fast cars and beautiful goals.