What should we do to fight back against sportswashing?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 3

The massive Saudi investment into football this summer has brought increased urgency to debate about sportswashing. In the previous two parts of this discussion, I first set out why there is reason to be morally concerned about Saudi involvement in the sport (and sport in general, more broadly), then argued that ethically we should be more concerned to think about complicity with a sportswashing exercise, as opposed to just focussing on hypocrisy and whether individuals are totally consistent with their expressed beliefs.

Now I want to put forward some suggestions that follow from this approach as to what fans can do in response to this issue.

Before getting into that, however, I think it is helpful to clarify what the general guiding aims of action should be. To do that, let’s first think about what the aims of sportswashing are: states engage in sportswashing as a means to extend their influence through an incredibly high-profile area of our social and cultural lives; their emphasis is on creating positive reputational impact for their state, while distracting from wrongdoing. In the process, they make participants within sporting institutions (not only players, but also other staff and a wider community of fans) complicit within a cover-up exercise.

The sportswasher, therefore, wants fans to be so enthused by the sporting spectacle that they ignore any wider concerns. Pushing-back against sportswashing requires us as fans to not be compliant with this wish.

What to do if an authoritarian state buys your team

So, let’s suppose the team you support becomes the subject of a takeover by a regime looking to engage in sportswashing. How should you respond?

Firstly, let’s outline something I don’t think you have to do. You do not have to sever all ties in order to be able to have and raise concerns. I put the case in the previous post that absolute purity cannot be demanded as a precondition for criticism: we should not be so concerned about hypocrisy as to say that you cannot voice concern about your club’s ownership while still attending games, or engaging in other forms of support for the team. It is absolutely understandable if some fans come to decide that they find some forms of ongoing association with the club too much to bear, but given just how deep within our identities football affiliation can sit, it seems unreasonable to demand this of any dissatisfied fans.

We do, though, need to retain some sense of perspective. As fans, we can easily become prone to motivated reasoning, to thinking that what is good for our team’s prospects is just good, all things considered. We can easily convince ourselves, therefore, that there is nothing in those latest allegations against our star striker or that supposed breaches of financial regulations by our club are simply an attempt by clubs to bring us down. Or that the people pumping money into our club are decent, reformist modernisers, so any talk of human rights abuses must be overblown.

But, we have a responsibility as fans not to become cheerleaders for our club’s owners. Don’t engage in culturally dubious sartorial tributes; don’t chant the name of your Russian owner during a minute’s applause for Ukraine; don’t jump onto social media or online comment spaces to shout down potential critique of your owners; don’t attend international games of the state that backs your club. The symbols and interests of the state that owns your club are not your symbols and interests — don’t take on the role of a footsoldier for the sportswashing exercise.

Newcastle fan in black and white Saudi themed dress, waves a Saudi flag

The bigger point here is that we never owe loyalty to the owners of our club. While it is often a tribal reflex for football fans to simply defend everything about our club from outside criticism, we have a responsibility to fight against that urge here. It is not disloyal to be open-minded in considering potential charges against the club’s owners — if there are ties to human rights abuse, it is not disloyal to acknowledge them. The club is a separate entity from its legal owners; we can continue to embrace one while honestly conceding deep concerns about the other. (This is, incidentally, something fans rarely have an issue with when it comes to bad owners: Manchester United fans have consistently maintained an antipathy towards the Glazers, in the same way the Newcastle fans were resistant for years towards Mike Ashley.)

How should other fans respond?

But sportswashing is not just a concern for fans of clubs owned by states with dubious records, but poses a challenge to the integrity of the sport as a whole. So how should broader concerns be responded to? I’m going to start by thinking, in particular, about the Saudi Pro League, as that was the main prompt for these posts.

One of the big things I think fans should aim to do is to avoid deepening their involvement or complicity with sportswashing exercises. While this makes cases like the takeover of a beloved club difficult, when it comes to the money being thrown at the Saudi Pro League, I think the response we should take is far easier. You (I presume, at least) have no existing ties to this competition or to clubs within it; don’t start to follow Saudi football. You were not interested in catching the Al-Hilal highlights last season, you didn’t follow Al-Ahli on the socials, you didn’t buy your child an Al-Nassr shirt, so don’t do any of those things now. Don’t watch the matches (which DAZN recently announced they would be showing), don’t care about what is happening there. The Pro League’s success cannot be based solely on players joining its clubs, if fans do not allow the attention to be sufficiently drawn to sustain it. Don’t extend your own involvement with Saudi sportswashing by dipping your toe in the water.

Broadening the above point, we should not allow sportswashers to simply become part of the landscape, a normal feature of football like any other team owner or league operator. They want us talking about the football and not the other stuff, the bad stuff; they want positive associations. So we have a responsibility to try to prevent that from happening. Don’t ever get bored of raising (or even just hearing) the human rights concerns. Players who choose to play in Saudi should be asked awkward questions. As should people connected with Man City and Newcastle United. Pundits and journalists should raise concerns on a regular basis. I have no issue with rival fans using chants, banners or social media to keep issues in the public eye.
I know that fans often look to football as an escape from the more serious concerns of life, so may not want to keep talking about or hearing about factors beyond the game. But, refusing to let our attention shift totally away from these broader factors is a price worth paying for preventing the sport from being entirely colonised by state money and the political concerns it brings.

Banner shown by Crystal Palace fans in 2021, criticising the Premier League for approving the Newcastle takeover

So far, the measures have mostly been about avoiding any further deepening of complicity, but what steps are there to actually reversing the issues we already face? The problem here is that there are few steps that are actually open to fans that are likely to make a real difference. The most important actions that could be taken to control the ability of state funds to shape football are only available to regulators, in the form of football authorities (FIFA, UEFA, individual football leagues and associations) or, in the case of involvement in European leagues, lawmakers in our parliaments.
What fans can do, though, is to make sure their opinions are heard by these regulators. Write to your local MP, sign petitions, support campaigns by human rights organisations, encourage others to do the same. These can feel like fruitless gestures. Most of us will also have little faith in either football’s governing bodies or our political representatives actually doing the right thing — most will be happy to roll the red carpet out to oil wealth so as to avoid scaring away potential investment. But if we are unhappy about the sport we love becoming little more than a PR tool for abusive regimes, changes to rules or new forms of regulation still offer our best hope for resistance.

So, what regulation is needed?

Preventing sportswashing in established European leagues feels far more feasible than stopping the Saudi Pro League from making giant offers to big name players (and, more likely than not, those players accepting those deals). But what sort of regulations should we be calling for?

One possibility would be that nothing new is required, all that is needed is for a more stringent application of existing rules. Leagues have ownership rules and typically retain the ability to block takeovers if they have doubts about prospective owners, which could easily be used as a mechanism to prevent European teams becoming used for sportswashing purposes. Indeed, in March of this year the Premier League added an explicit stipulation that proven involvement in human rights violations is a “disqualifying event” within the fit and proper persons test for owners. They have the power to stop abusers taking control of clubs.

However, there are several reasons why this is unlikely to prove effective as a guard against sportswashing, as the Newcastle takeover might be used to illustrate. The humans rights element was not present within the ownership tests at the point the takeover was concluded, but even if it had been, it seems hard to imagine a scenario where the takeover would have been blocked. The first issue is the difficulty of picking up on concerns about institutional links with a test that is designed to assess individuals. That is, it can be easy for all of the main individuals associated with an ownership bid — such as, in Newcastle United’s case, PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan — to personally be totally free of any evidence of connection to any form of human rights abuse. However PIF, as the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, possesses a direct institutional link between it and the Saudi state (irrespective of the supposed legally-binding assurances to the contrary received by the Premier League), which does therefore create an institutional implication between the money behind the Newcastle takeover and every single state official within Saudi Arabia, which therefore also carries a connection to widespread and well documented human rights abuses.

Yet, even if it were possible to find the evidence to link the specific figures involved to human rights abuse, the next potential pitfall is that acting upon it may be viewed, in political terms, as a potential embarrassment or strategic error. A high profile accusation of human rights abuse or the blocking of a strategically significant investment deal could be something that causes an upset that is felt to be a political or diplomatic problem. This actually appears to have been a worry for the UK Foreign Office during the complicated Newcastle takeover process, as the text of emails uncovered by The Athletic demonstrate:

It’s not for HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) to intervene in buying/selling football clubs. But HMG is not neutral about UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a crucial and valuable relationship with an important partner, regionally and globally. The purchase of Newcastle United by KSA’s sovereign wealth fund would be a valuable boost to the relationship and signal of intent for further Saudi investment in the north east.

Reports also suggest Boris Johnson, possibly at the direct prompting of MBS, was active behind the scenes in pushing for the Newcastle takeover to go ahead.

Once it is a state seeking to purchase a football club, the matter becomes one of geopolitical significance, affecting trade and security relationships, and shaping far wider investment discussions. This makes it harder — although, it must be noted, far from impossible — to make an individual decision to oppose an ownership bid, without this action having much wider consequences.

Here we come to the crux of the matter: states are inherently political entities, so their involvement as football owners makes governance of the sport or enforcement of ethical rules (or, indeed, other rules such as Financial Fair Play that seek to protect a measure of competitive balance) that much harder. As well as turbo-charging the processes of commodification and financialisation that fans already worry are ruining the game, it creates the sort of complicity that these posts have highlighted as the key ethical concern — football becomes implicated within various state-led propaganda projects.

In some respects, with Manchester City and Newcastle already as precedents, we are already too late to stop this. However, I still think that if we want to find the most effective means to push back against sportswashing by keeping it out of European football, the easiest mechanism would be through the implementation of rules or laws that prevent the (either direct or indirect) ownership of football clubs by states or their sovereign wealth funds. This is something the admirable NUFC Against Sportswashing group have campaigned for, with their site providing a useful model letter for any fan who wishes to take action by contacting their political representative.

The other front in resistance to sportswashing in club football would be in striving to keep the Saudi Pro League outside and separate from top-level competitions. There are already whispers of attempts to secure a place for Saudi clubs within the Champions League but, should this be unsuccessful, you could easily imaging attempts to collaborate with disgruntled European giants (Barcelona and Real Madrid being prime candidates) on some form of breakaway rival, akin to the LIV Tour in golf.

Holding fast to a strict division between Saudi-backed competitions and established European leagues is vital for preventing the success of their sportswashing exercise. At present, although European clubs cannot match the spending power of the Saudis, they retain two major advantages in attracting the world’s best players: one is that their leagues are the most historically established, with storied clubs that are regarded as being the place where footballing careers and reputations are made; the second builds on this idea in that, therefore, European leagues are seen to provide the peak of club competition, capturing global attention to its fullest, so moving anywhere else will potentially be a hindrance to a player’s standing or their ability to continue to be selected for international competition. If, however, the divide were to become blurred — if you could take the money offered by Al-Hilal, yet still be seen regularly playing matches at the very highest level in the Champions League — any hope of preventing a Saudi takeover of top-level club football seems immediately diminished.

Do I have confidence that, when the time comes, regulators or legislators will prevent this? When there is a huge pile of investment money at stake in exchange for a place in the Champions League or for backing a new global competition format do I really expect them to hold out? I have doubts that they will but, for fans who wish to prevent the further complicity of our sport with abusive authoritarian regimes, doing whatever we can to hold the football authorities and our political representatives to account, pushing them to do the right thing, remains our best hope.

Is Saudi investment in football a moral problem?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 1

This summer’s biggest football story continues to be the vast sums of money being spent by clubs within Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to attract star names to play in Arabia. The previous post discussed this from the perspective of the sport as a whole, thinking about how Saudi money might (or might not) change the football landscape.

There is, however, an entirely different way in which we might approach these developments, which is to consider how ethically problematic they are and how football — fans, players, regulators — should respond. This is what I’ll do over the course of three posts. In this one, I assess the reasons we might have for objecting to Saudi prominence in the sport; part two argues that our evaluations of this issue need to go beyond picking out hypocrisy; part three considers how we should best respond.

What are the issues here?

Money from Middle-Eastern petro-states is, of course, not new in football: Manchester City’s current reign of success has been bankrolled by Abu Dhabi, while Qatar, in addition to hosting last year’s World Cup, has also overseen an ownership period at Paris Saint Germain during which the club has pursued a ‘Football Manager on cheat mode’ transfer policy — bringing, among others, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar to the French capital — yet has failed to bring the Champions League trophy that would have marked the project as a success. Throughout this period, we have seen increased discussion of the concept of sportswashing as a way of capturing the ethical unease caused by links between sporting events or organisations and entities (especially states) whose wider activities raise significant moral questions.

Under the banner of sportswashing, however, there are a range of different concerns that often get bundled together. I think it is worth distinguishing between the different issues caused by state involvement of this kind, though, to be clear as to the different types of response that might be available.

The first level of concern is that state finances, or the sovereign wealth funds through which investment in football usually comes, are generally able to dwarf the wealth of even the richest private individuals, meaning funding of this kind is capable of propelling the clubs it backs straight to the peak of the football transfer market, while in the process bidding-up the transfer fees and wages that top stars are able to command. In short, it turbo-charges the effects of inequality upon levels of competition in the sport. The whole point of this site is to explore how inequality of resources off-the-field impacts what we see on-the-field, so this is certainly an effect that is worth caring about. But, it is not a problem that is uniquely caused by sportswashing, nor is it the most serious moral concern raised by the presence of Gulf money, so I’ll leave this aside for the rest of this post.

Equally, there are a whole set of worries about whether state ownership of clubs is something that takes them away from the fans: over time are we likely to come to view Newcastle United as simply a soft-power extension of the Saudi state, rather than a proud expression of the identity of a particular place and its people? Again, while a very real concern, I think this fits into a broader set of arguments about club ownership and whether it is right that football clubs are freely traded as commodities or brands, so is not just a concern that relates to sportswashing.

What is most distinctively problematic about sportswashing can be seen if we think about what the aims of the exercise are: as Wojtowicz, Fruh and Archer note, sportswashing is reputational in character, “an attempt to distract from, minimize, or normalize wrongdoing through engagement in sport” (if you’re the kind to want to read academic papers, their fuller discussion of the topic is available to read here). But any reputational gains are secured on the back of the players whose wages are funded or the fans cheering those players from the stand or watching at home: football and its participants become complicit in efforts to gloss over serious wrongs.

So how much of a moral problem is complicity within the project of establishing a positive reputation for the Saudi regime? Is it something that football players or football fans should be trying to avoid? And if we do want to avoid becoming complicit, what actions should we take?

Why care about Saudi money?

One response that is sometimes given by those who might want to play down the seriousness of sportswashing is to point towards the money that has already circulated within top level football clubs. Do we have any grounds for saying that Saudi money is worse than Roman Abramovich’s money, or even Mike Ashley’s money? There is a real point here: few of the people who possess the money to own a football club will have acquired it without some reliance upon exploitation, asset-stripping, tax avoidance or other forms of ethically dubious sharp practice. Whoever we support, it is likely that some form of dirty money lies behind them somewhere.

However, there is a difference between acknowledging that the ethical issues in discussion of football money are not blacks and whites, but rather endless shades of grey, and supporting a claim that all money is equally dubious so that no distinguishing lines might be drawn. There are undoubtedly, criticisms that might be made of money that has been made through operating a gambling firm, or a retail operation with poor labour practices towards its staff, but would anyone be willing to argue that there was absolutely no difference at all between money acquired in that manner and, say, an investment right now that came directly from Vladimir Putin? We don’t need to be able to hold up other owners as morally pure to commit to the idea that a line exists somewhere, beyond which funds are sufficiently tainted that we do not want them within the sport as this would create complicity with things we most certainly do not want to be associated with.

The question, then, in trying to assess how we should think about Saudi investment is to ask whether there are any associations of such a high degree of severity to cross this threshold.

The first thing to say is that we are obviously into different territory when we start getting full-blown states (through their sovereign wealth funds) owning football clubs. The opportunity for wrongdoing is just on a different order of magnitude for a state compared to businesses or private individuals: businesses follow (or seek to evade) laws; states make them and enforce them. States have armies, police forces and powers of coercion. This is why, when we talk of human rights abuses, we are generally pointing at state failures, either in improper use of power or failure to use powers well in controlling abuse by others within their boundaries.

And it is typically neglect or abuse of human rights that form the basis for the need to sportswash. The records of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are frequently highlighted by human rights organisations for infringements of, or failure to secure, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. If a state needs to spend billions on sport in an elaborate reputation management exercise, you can hardly be surprised that what they have to hide is going to be unpleasant.

Yet, even by this standard, there is much to be appalled by when it comes to the Saudi state. As an absolute monarchy, its power basically rests in the figure of the monarch (currently King Salman), with accession decided by court intrigue between different factions among the House of Saud’s princes, such as that which brought the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to his present prime role in the lineage, at the expense of the prior holder, Muhammad bin Nayef. The government is appointed by the monarch (MBS currently sits as the country’s Prime Minister) and serves at the monarch’s discretion, unchecked by any form of institutional scrutiny or popular input.

This is one of the things that makes it easy to be disconcerted by Saudi investment in football. The PIF sovereign wealth fund is basically controlled by the King (despite the Premier League claiming to have “legally binding assurances” to the contrary when authorising the Newcastle takeover), creating a direct link between human rights abuses carried out by the Saudi state and the money being pumped into the game. There is, therefore, a direct connection between the spending by Saudi Pro League clubs and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in every grisly detail we have subsequently found out about it, or in the 148 people who were put to death by the Saudi state last year, with public beheading still a common method of execution. We can also draw direct links between the denial of any legal right for LGBTQ+ people to express their sexuality and the desaturation of Jordan Henderson’s (more on him in the next post) rainbow armband in the video welcoming him to Al-Ettifaq. There is no easy separation between the money, the Saudi state and it’s actions.

But let’s delve a little deeper and tell another grim story (unfortunately, there are many to choose from) to help inform our evaluation of where we stand in assessing Saudi influence, with particular attention to its treatment of women and some of the much-trumpeted social reforms that have been enacted in recent years.

In 2017, a short video clip went viral on Twitter, filmed on a smartphone held at torso level, showing the shoulder and arm of a woman’s jacket. A woman’s voice is heard: “My name is Dina Ali, I’m a Saudi woman who fled Saudi Arabia to Australia to seek asylum. I stopped in the Philippines for transit. They took my passport and lock me for 13 hours just because I am a Saudi woman, with the collaboration of Saudi embassy. If my family come, they will kill me, if I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead.”

Despite the efforts of many Twitter users to draw attention to her predicament or get official assistance, Dina Ali Lasloom was held at Manila airport until several members of her family arrived there. Witnesses later reported seeing her, visibly distressed, being pulled out of a room with her arms and legs bound with duct tape, her mouth taped shut and her body wrapped in a sheet as she was then carried onto a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Riyadh. The Saudi embassy in the Philippines sought to respond to the circulating social media information, describing it as incorrect, but confirmed that there was a “family matter” that led to a Saudi citizen returning to the Kingdom with her family.

Upon return, Dina was reportedly placed into a Dar al-Re‘aya — a ‘house of care’ tasked with imparting discipline and strengthening religious affiliation. Effectively, these are prisons for disobedient women, many of which operate in a highly abusive way.

Dina’s ultimate whereabouts and fate remain unknown.

The way Dina’s situation was handled is made possible by the guardianship system that operates in the country, which effectively consigns women to control by a male relative (father, husband, uncle, brother, even son), whose permission had to be obtained for many basic acts. So Dina’s choice to travel abroad was deemed improper, as she was doing so without the consent of her guardian.

In the period since 2017, there have been a raft of changes to the formal status of women in Saudi Arabia. Women have been granted access to services such as healthcare and education without the need for a guardian’s permission. Likewise, they may now obtain a passport or make travel plans without prior approval. Strict gender segregation of public spaces has been relaxed in a way that allowed more women access to employment or enabled them to attend sporting events. And, famously, since 2017 Saudi women have been permitted to drive.

This latter restriction had, in many senses, come to be symbolic of Saudi restriction upon women’s lives. Inspired by the Arab Spring, a homegrown movement of women — figures like Manal al-Sharif, Wajeha al-Huwaider, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef — had begun to campaign for the right to drive, bringing the prohibition to wider prominence across the world. The provocative singer MIA chose to incorporate a reference to this, with the video for her 2012 single ‘Bad Girls’ aping the common drifting subculture of fast desert driving, but with women instead of men behind the wheel.

Within the context of the Saudis’ Vision 2030 strategy to move the economy of the kingdom away from a reliance upon oil, it is obvious why wider attention upon restrictions could be seen as an embarrassment. MBS has seen how areas within the Gulf, such as Dubai, have managed to open up to global tourism and financial investment in a way that created a viable economic future beyond oil, and is keen to follow a similar path. But, it is harder to project yourself as a destination or a suitable partner for business collaboration if your society is perceived as one of gender apartheid, with hard-line, or even backward, religious controls over its population. The fact that the apparent loosening of the guardianship system and repeal of the driving ban gained widespread approval from outside has helped to somewhat soften international perceptions, opening up possibilities, such as attracting some of football’s biggest names, that would have previously seemed impossible.

But, scratch the surface a little more and the liberalising narrative starts to look very shaky. Firstly, while there have been genuine changes to the way women are treated, with a loosening some of the guardianship restrictions in a way that promises additional freedoms to women, these are still effectively undercut by the fact that it remains a crime for a woman to disobey her guardian. What this means is that a woman is only able to take advantage of the new freedoms at her guardian’s discretion — if he wants her to remain in the home or to prevent her from travelling, she is still bound by these limits. As characterised by Megan Stack in The New York Times, what this amounts to is that Saudi “government will no longer legally force men to keep the women of their household under heightened control — but it won’t force men to emancipate women, either.” Cases like that of Dina Ali Lasloom, where a woman is going against the will of her family, would not be eased by any of the relaxations.

Beyond the question of whether changes have made a real difference, we should also look at the way that those who have advocated for change have been treated. While women were given the right to drive in 2017, many of those involved in the previous campaign for this entitlement subsequently found themselves subject to a harsh crackdown, with multiple arrests across 2018. In indeterminate periods of incarceration, activists report being subjected to torture in the form of solitary confinement, beatings, electric shocks, threats to life, waterboarding and sexual harassment.

This is part of a pattern in which the Saudi state has increasingly clamped down on any signs of citizen dissent. There is evidence of widespread use of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and extended detention in poor or degrading conditions as punishment for even minor displays of criticism of the ruling regime. Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi PhD student at the University of Leeds who had returned home on holiday, was last summer sentenced to 34 years in prison simply for having a Twitter profile that followed the accounts of other activists and dissidents, and for occasionally retweeting some of their tweets.

We see, then, a double-edged nature to the way the Saudi state currently operates: to the outside world, there is an effort to present a face of being a forward-looking, exciting place that is opening up both to its own citizens and to the rest of the world; at the same time, anyone within the state who questions its rulers or calls for greater reform is ruthlessly brought into line. It leaves the impression that MBS wants it to be clear that the visions for the new Saudi are all bestowed purely as a result of his own magnificence and benevolence, that he is never acting in response to pressure from his subjects, or from outsiders looking in.

Here is where we can bring things back to football. In joining Saudi clubs, footballers are making themselves complicit in this process, essentially allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool for a state that still engages in torture, whose legal and judicial processes are opaque and arbitrary in their operation, who have contributed to one of the worst current humanitarian crises in the world due to involvement in conflict in Yemen, whose treatment of migrant workers is just as bad as the more publicised cases of Qatar and the UAE, whose treatment of women, LGBTQ+ people, and religious minorities remains discriminatory and dehumanising.

Drawing a line

I made the case above that it is implausible to claim we should never raise ethical concerns about the source of money within football, but rather it is always more about making a judgement as to when a line had been crossed into impropriety. Now, I am personally of the opinion that much of the existing money already within the game raises uncomfortable moral questions, so perhaps we should have been talking about these concerns for a lot longer than we have. Equally, it is important for us to be even-handed in our assessments and criticisms so as to prevent them from lapsing into simple xenophobia — for instance, we should be prepared to be critical of the fact that the UK has consistently been one of the biggest arms suppliers to the Saudi state, assisting in building its strength and power. But even taking these points into consideration, it seems clear to me that, from a football perspective, our worries should be increased when we are talking about money from state sovereign wealth funds, and that Saudi investment is the most discomfiting of any source of funds entering the sport so far.

Everyone in football, therefore, has reasons to be concerned about Saudi money, not just for its scale and the potential to distort the finances of the game, but also because of its inseparable associations with such a harshly autocratic regime.

The organisation ALQST provides detailed monitoring of human rights issues within Saudi Arabia. Further information and detailed reports about many of the issues discussed in this post can be accessed via their site.

The big disruption – Saudi money in football

The biggest football story of the summer has been the astronomical deals being done by clubs from Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to lure some of the game’s biggest stars. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kanté have all accepted mind-boggling sums to join Saudi clubs, with offers also made for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé.

While this site is attentive to the negative impact of money upon football competitions, one of the underlying premises of the analysis provided here (such as in the competitive inequality project) is that its actual effects tend to be gradual, only really revealing themselves fully across a long time period. But that’s because, so far at least, money in club football has played an evolutionary role: yes, competition formats have been subtly reshaped by the influence of the larger clubs, but this has all taken place within the context of existing competitions within Europe’s established domestic leagues and continental cup competitions. And, the only real attempt to break with that evolution – the European Super League – quickly collapsed as it became clear that the money men behind the proposals had pushed beyond anything fans would be prepared to accept.

Here now, though, we see an external influence with the power to disrupt the established footballing order: a determined political actor with deep wells of money and ambitions to cement itself as a prime global player – both in the sporting world and in broader geopolitical terms.

But how should fans react to this? Is this just another futile boom-and-bust attempt to wrestle footballing power away from Europe’s elite leagues? Is it all just an elaborate PR exercise to distract from Saudi Arabia’s grim human rights record? Or is there a genuine potential for this to change club football? In this post, I’ll examine a range of possible scenarios for how things might play out, then in a second post I’ll consider the moral questions raised by the involvement of such a problematic state actor in top level sport (the second post sprawled into a three-parter: part one is here).

Scenario 1: the Saudi Pro League fizzles out

While the response to this Saudi spending spree has almost universally been one of amazement at the sheer scale of the numbers involved, many seem quite relaxed or even dismissive of its ability to have a profound effect upon the footballing landscape, reasoning that the European game is just too dominant to be effectively challenged.

Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence to support this idea would be to highlight that we have been here before in the recent past. In 2016 and 2017, it was Chinese teams who suddenly started throwing huge piles of money at high profile players, attracting the likes of Oscar, Hulk and Carlos Tevez. Pundits highlighted the ambition of China’s president Xi Jinping to turn the country into a footballing powerhouse through investment in youth development and efforts to build a top class domestic league.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, not averse to following the money, had taken the manager’s role at Shanghai SIPG and was effusive on the prospects for the new league arguing that “everyone should be worried” about the emergence of the new league: “The money is here and the football is getting better… This is reality for a long time… China will soon be a world power in football.”

He wasn’t alone, though, in suggesting that the political will and sheer economic might of China made the new league “a grave threat” to the financial dominance of the big European leagues. Arsenal’s then-manager Arsene Wenger warned of a danger that “Chinese offers become the benchmark for Europe. You cannot compete with that.”

The reality, however, turned out to be quite different. Concern quickly grew within China that the outsized spending needed to draw stars from Europe was draining money that could have been invested into homegrown development. As a result spending caps were soon imposed. Equally, the football sector continued to draw the attention of Chinese state anti-corruption efforts while, under tighter economic circumstances, exacerbated by the impact of Covid controls, it became clear that the economic foundation just was not there to support continued extravagant spending. Some corporate financing was withdrawn, clubs folded as it became clear they could not pay their bills.

The Chinese Super League still exists, but the idea it could be a serious challenger to European leagues now looks foolish.

Is what we are currently seeing with the Saudi Pro League just a rerun? A flurry of unrestrained spending, which will burn fast and bright, but will fizzle out in acrimony.

There is certainly evidence to support that perspective. Some of the clubs involved in this summer’s lavish spending have outstanding dispute resolution cases pending with FIFA due to non-payment of player wages, which leave them unable to register star signings until resolved. Equally, frequent reports of Saudi royals failing to settle their bills might give sustenance to the opinion that this spending is not reflective of any sort of long-term shift in the football landscape. Like the Chinese, the Saudis will come to realise just how much of a bedrock is provided by the tradition and infrastructure of European clubs and leagues, the buy-in of both local and global fans, the matchday atmosphere, the structures for scouting and youth development.

In short, it is much easier to transplant a few stars than it is to create something vibrant and attractive enough to be sustainable in the long-term in the cutthroat world of global sport.

Scenario 2: a place in the pecking-order

Ultra-pessimistic predictions for football in Saudi could easily be contested, however. There are some indications that Saudi ambition is based upon a long-haul commitment that means we are not dealing with just another fly-by-night league. There seems to be real impetus from within Saudi (or, at least, from crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is the only figure who really matters), as part of its ‘Vision 2030’ strategy, to shape the kingdom to be a key player, both in geopolitical affairs and in the global economy, while shifting beyond a narrow reliance upon oil reserves. Football could easily be seen as a vital component of this shift, a sector that actually remains incredibly good value for money for ambitious states seeking to raise their profile.

Indeed, when seen in the context of some of their other projects, such as the half-trillion sci-fi vision for the entirely new city-region of Neom (featuring a 170km long but just 200m wide cavernous linear city sheltered from the desert sun by giant mirrored skyscraping walls) the sums involved in the current football splurge are comparatively modest. Yet, in terms of grabbing the world’s attention, they have paid off handsomely.

Another indicator that we are dealing with more of a long-haul scheme is the fact that the entire effort is reported to be being closely overseen and coordinated by officials at the league level. It is not, therefore, a free-for-all where the clubs end up competing against each other and bidding prices up, but rather an attempt to drive the league’s development collectively.

But, even if they are serious, where might this realistically get the Saudis?

I think most people would forecast that the ceiling for the Saudi Pro League is actually not much beyond the stature it has already achieved. That is, they would put it in competition with the MLS as the highest profile non-European league, one whose teams would be made up of a mix of locals, a smattering of mid-range players in their prime and some star names in the ‘one last payday’ stage of their careers. Progress from this point would therefore consist in stabilising the current profile of the league into something sustainable over the long-term, as there is little hope of pushing its development any further.

There’s a lot to be said for this being the most plausible aim for Saudi football. But, if you are a country in the business of pushing urban visions at the sci-fi fringes of possibility and you have near limitless funds at your disposal, are you really going to be satisfied with a comfortable seat in the second tier of global football leagues?

Scenario 3: a chance to eclipse the old order

Most of the discussion of the Saudi moves this summer has been subtly dismissive. Not in the sense of ignoring it or playing it down – we’ve all been staggered by the scale of the deals that are being done. But the shock is often accompanied by comments about this bidding up the prices that top Premier League teams, or other major European clubs, will have to pay from now on, always carrying the assumption that these clubs will, of course, keep up and match, or eventually outpace, the Saudi upstart.

But how confident of this can we be? If the Saudis make this level of funding available for not just a single summer of splashes, but for four or five years? If just a handful of top players in their prime (Mbappé?) also decide that the sums available in Arabia are offers that cannot be refused? If TV networks across the globe start to show a new league that features some of the biggest names in football (perhaps Saudi money might even be put towards a buy-out of broadcasters like Sky Sports), can we be sure of what viewing figures would look like? Is it impossible that they establish themselves as a genuine challenger to the major European leagues?

Now, there’s a lot of ifs in that paragraph, so I’m not saying it’s the most likely outcome. But I think it is inevitable that someone among those coordinating the Pro League plans has also asked these questions.

There are also two further things that might open a door for greater ambitions. The first concerns the general economic climate of the West. Beyond the daily struggles of many people to pay ever rising bills, there has also been a straightening of circumstances among the billionaire class. Not so much, at least yet, in terms of their personal circumstances, but rather that the general business climate has changed. An era of cheap credit and easy money, which had lasted solidly since the financial crisis of 2008, is over. Suddenly, willing investors are slightly more scarce and businesses that speculated too rashly or extended themselves too far are worrying about their balance sheets. We’ve already seen some bubbles deflate: crypto is no longer headed “to the moon”; streaming services have been slashing budgets at a similar rate as tech giants have shed workers. Some of the giants of football, many of whom are massively indebted and over-leveraged, also look to be on shaky ground. They are, therefore, not in a great position to mount a defence of their status, particularly when facing off against one of the few actors in the global economy who currently possesses secure access to large funds.

The fact that financial futures of some of football’s giants are insecure has been highlighted as one of the prime motivations for them (especially Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus) to have committed to the European Super League plans. The collapse of those proposals is the other factor that might open a sliver of a chance for the Saudi Pro League. Fans in Europe have made it quite clear that their attachment to existing tournament formats and ideals of open competition are not negotiable; they will not agree to any re-engineering of the sport in order to design the kind of hyper-capitalist, globally marketable product that rich owners or investors might desire. And the opinions of fans have been backed here not just by footballing authorities such as UEFA, but also by governments, with moves such as the UK fan-led review of the game under Conservative MP Tracey Crouch.

Such obstacles simply do not exist in Saudi. The authoritarian Saudi state faces no constitutional requirement to respond to anyone but its ruler, nor is there any hard budget constraint given the continued demand for oil. If an intensely marketable football product, optimised for global consumption, is to emerge, maybe the blank slate offered within Saudi provides a simpler foundation than trying to reshape a European game with rich traditions and histories.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to this scenario is the pulling power of those very traditions. Fan attachment is stickier than any other consumer loyalty. Most watchers of the game, even those whose experience is solely through television, already have their ties to specific shirts, locales and histories. Players want to pull on particular, storied colours. The all white of Real Madrid or the (I’ll confess I had to look this up) yellow and black stripes of Al-Ittihad? It would take a long period of sustained development of the Saudi game for the latter to have any similar pull to it. As the Chinese Super League soon found to its cost, it is not a quick or easy process to build enough of a fanbase for football investment to start truly paying.

So while a slim chance exists, this scenario still feels unlikely. If Mbappé ends up at Al-Hilal, I might reconsider, though…

Scenario 4: a catalyst for change in European football

For anyone looking to understand Saudi strategy here, it is instructive to look at what has happened within golf. Here, initially money from Saudi’s PIF investment fund was used to back a breakaway tour, which managed to recruit some high profile names like Phil Mickelson and Sergio García, but also received fierce resistance from figures such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and met with sanctions for those taking part from the established PGA tour. But, then, earlier this summer, it was announced that the two tours would merge, in a move many have seen as a backdoor Saudi takeover.

Now, this is not to say that the exact same thing is likely to occur in football, but a couple of aspects of the case of golf are worth highlighting. The first is that the Saudis have no issue if their plans upset a deeply established order or if they cause major division and rancour. They will be determined and ruthless in pursuit of their goals. The second is that Saudi investment appears to have an adaptive strategy that can work at multiple levels: they did not simply dig-in on advancing LIV by keeping on trying to entice players to the new tour, but also sought to deal with the sport’s other authorities in order to advance their aims.

In football, we can already see signs of this flexibility in the fact that as well as PIF backing the Pro League, and indeed having ownership of four of its clubs, at the same time they have overall control of Newcastle United, so also have an interest if established leagues maintain their status at the top of the game. (Some worry about the potential for these multiple ownerships creating scope for collusion, for example by potentially assisting Newcastle in evading Financial Fair Play regulations, which is certainly worth keeping an eye on.)

But could this be part of a broader strategy? That the massive spending this summer is, to an extent at least, specifically aimed at playing off options at different levels by first inducing stress or panic among Europe’s established giants?

Why might they want to do this? Well, presenting a rival league with very deep pockets could be the spark that causes Europe’s giants to once again agitate for more radical reform options to head-off the challenge. We could see a return for Super League ideas, or some other significant shake-up of the way European football goes about its business, as a way to resist the perceived threat. This might then open up investment opportunities for a stake in any new competition, or at the very least enable Saudi-controlled clubs, such as Newcastle, to be placed at the heart of any proposals.

Again, this scenario involves some speculation on my part. I think, though, that fans need to be aware that the knock-on effects of current Saudi spending carry varied possible threats with them.

How worried should we be?

I think much of the discussion of the Saudi Pro League has underestimated the disruption it is capable of causing. Yes, there’s a chance of it going the way of the Chinese Super League, but there’s also a chance that football follows golf in descending into acrimony and chaos as the impact of the otherworldly sums of money currently being spent continue to ripple out.

There’s one further obstacle to Saudi aims, however, which is that enough people within football – fans, players, authorities – resist cooperation with their plans on ethical grounds. There are, after all, very real concerns about the fact that what we are dealing with here is an authoritarian religious state that regularly violates basic human rights of its citizens, while aiding the progress of a hideous and prolonged war in neighbouring Yemen. How should we, as sports fans, respond to these factors? That will be the subject of the next post.