Saudi Arabia builds sustainable sports ecosystem through acquisition of top football talent

As countries race to secure broadcasting rights to the Kingdom's games, Al Majalla examines the biggest star transfers to the newly revamped Saudi Sports League.

The transfers of star footballers Ronaldo, Neymar, and Benzema to Saudi Arabia were felt around the world. Al Majalla explores how these major moves are shaking up the global sports landscape.
Eduardo Ramon
The transfers of star footballers Ronaldo, Neymar, and Benzema to Saudi Arabia were felt around the world. Al Majalla explores how these major moves are shaking up the global sports landscape.

Saudi Arabia builds sustainable sports ecosystem through acquisition of top football talent

Last August, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman launched 24 initiatives under the Saudi Green campaign aimed at planting around 10 billion trees across Saudi Arabia in the coming decades.

The initiatives also include the construction of the world’s largest urban parks – as well as a world-class football stadium.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia launched the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatisation Project, as part of the country’s Vision 2030 programme, which seeks to achieve economic diversification. Its aims include incentivising public sector contributions to sports, as well as the privatisation of sports clubs.

Ali Khamej
The Big Four will enter a new era under the umbrella of the Public Investment Fund in Saudi Arabia.

Under the project, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – one of the world’s largest sovereign funds, with assets exceeding $620bn – acquired 75% of the four top Saudi football clubs Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli, and Al-Ittihad.

Reports indicate that the investment project, which launched in 2021, has reached $6bn in spending as of August 2023 – four times the amount of investments made between 2014 and 2021.

The Kingdom is also earmarking investments for golf, Formula 1, and boxing, alongside its purchase of the English Premier League’s (EPL) Newcastle United football club.

Breaking up a monopoly

When it comes to golf, the PIF managed to break up the monopoly that once restricted the game to politicians and the wealthy.

Instead, it’s now “available to everyone, just as other popular sports, like football,” as per PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan.

However, it was a hard battle to get there. When the PIF launched the American LIV Golf tournament to disrupt the dominance of the PGA Tour, the latter filed a lawsuit against the PIF.

Following a failed round of litigation, a settlement was reached to merge the two golf championships – as well as the DP World Tour – into one major tournament.

The result is set to be the world’s largest commercial competition in golf, with Al-Rumayyan at the helm.

Through such efforts, Saudi Arabia aims to attract around 100 million visitors by 2030, compared to the current annual average of 62 million. This should help step up the tourism sector’s contribution to the GDP by 10% compared to the current 3% ($169bn).

The Kingdom is also seeking to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, which is currently being proposed as a cross-continental event, potentially co-hosted by Saudi Arabia, Greece, and Egypt.

Transformation strategies

In early August 2023, the Kingdom unveiled its revamped football league – a crucial part of its sports sector transformation strategy.

The Saudi Pro League (SPL) aims to rank among the world’s top 10 leagues, with the help of top international players.

The Saudi Pro League (SPL) aims to rank among the world's top 10 leagues, with the help of top international players.

This strategy will not only raise the SPL's market value, but also boost competition, attract investors, and enhance the skills of young Saudi athletes who will play toe-to-toe with the world's best footballers.

As the SPL's first season kicked off, foreigners comprised 27.3% of the league's players, amounting to 139 out of a total 509. With the transfer window still open for another month, these figures are expected to rise soon.

"I think the budgets are in place for a number of years," said a member of the SPL Board of Directors, Peter Hutton. "I don't see this slowing down."

Local media outlets saw Hutton's statement as an indication of a sustainable sports project unfolding in the country.

Football royalty

The signing of top footballers by Saudi clubs has piqued the interest of several international media outlets, who have raced to broadcast SPL games.

French Canal+ Network announced that it has acquired the rights to broadcast two SPL matches per week for the next two seasons across France and some African countries.

On 7 August, Bloomberg also reported that "[b]illionaire Len Blavatnik's sports streaming company DAZN is close to acquiring the live broadcast rights for Saudi Pro League soccer in the UK, Germany and Austria."

Al Nassr's fans are seen in the stands waving Ronaldo flags.

Bloomberg cites a source familiar with the situation stating that "DAZN will pay around $500,000 for a one-year deal." The source adds that Greece and Brazil have separately agreed to deals as well.

With broadcast agreements covering more than 130 regions worldwide, the SPL is expected to quadruple returns compared to its last season.

Speaking to The New York Times on 14 July, Belgium's Jan Van Winckel, former technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, described Saudi efforts as "very smart."

"They are not just splashing money around. There is a strategy," he said. The article went on to state that the Kingdom is seeking to "build something sustainable."

(Saudi efforts) are very smart ... They are not just splashing money around. There is a strategy.

Jan Van Winckel, former technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation

To control the maelstrom, the SPL has issued a set of regulations governing trades planned for the current summer transfer window.

These include recommended contracts with players in their late twenties to early thirties; obtaining SPL's prior approval for transfers involving players who earn more than $3mn; prohibiting transfer bids among local teams; and blacklisting any player who is found to have used an offer as a bargaining chip.

The biggest face of this global transformation, who kicked off momentum for others, was Cristiano Ronaldo.

Nassr's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo is marked by Ittihad's Egyptian defender Ahmed Hegazi (R) during the Saudi Super Cup semi-final at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on January 26, 2023.

When the Portuguese football legend transferred from Real Madrid to Juventus, the Italian club's share value jumped by 30%. And when his transfer to Al-Nassr was announced, the Saudi club's market value jumped by 34% to €79.10mn, widening the gap between itself and the next local club, Al-Hilal, to a staggering €30mn.

But by mid-August, Al-Hilal snatched the top spot from Al-Nassr, according to Transfermarkt, after signing Brazilian football star Neymar da Silva.

Read more: Neymar: The Brazilian football star changing the face of Saudi football

Neymar shares the title of the Seleção's top scorer (77 goals) with none other than the legendary Pele.

Neymar, at 31, comes to Al-Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain, after a six-year run. During that time, he scored 118 goals in 173 matches and won several titles, including the Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France.

His official introduction to Al-Hilal garnered record-breaking views and media attention. His transfer announcement generated over 415 million impressions on Al-Hilal's official X (formerly Twitter) account.

But Ronaldo and Neymar are not the only members of football royalty to sign with the Saudi league, as part of the first stage of transformations taking place in the Kingdom's sports sector.

Other notable names include, but are not limited to, French striker Karim Benzema, who won the 2022 Ballon d'Or, his compatriot N'Golo Kanté, Senegal's Sadio Mané, Algeria's Riyad Mahrez, Portugal's Rúben Neves, and Morocco's Yassine Bounou, who won the title of best goalkeeper in last year's FIFA World Cup.

Fans are seen buying Neymar Al Hilal shirts at the club shop.

Cultural competition

Football history dates back to about 150 years ago, when the British Empire – at the time covering one-fourth of the world – sought to promote its culture across its many colonies.

At first, the British attempted to gatekeep the game, but it didn't take long for local communities in the colonies to learn it.

Football evolved from a sports game to a tool of political expression, and it began to play an increasingly pivotal role in rising independence movements across the Empire.

Sports, and football in particular, became a form of resistance against colonialism and an assertion of national identities.

Austrian researcher Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler believes that football's evolution can be regarded as a perfect representation of 20th-century history.

His compatriot Eva Kreisky states that football is not only a reflection of social relations but also of reality in its most accurate form – a measure of social and political shifts and transformations.

But this sentiment isn't restricted to football alone.

During the Rio 2016 Olympics, a game of women's beach volleyball between Germany and Egypt sparked hot debates worldwide, as pictures showing a "hijabi" (veiled) Egyptian player facing off with a bikini-clad German opponent swept the internet.

Commenting on the media uproar that accompanied the picture, a 2016 BBC report stated: "For the [London] Times it was a 'culture clash', for the Daily Mail 'a massive cultural divide' [...] – and for the Sun the cultural divide was not 'massive' but 'colossal'."

It's clear, then, that the social parameters of sport stretch wider than any court, field, or pitch.

The overwhelming and ever-increasing popularity of football has turned the game into a medium for soft-power competition among nations – a means to reiterate national identity and patriotism.

Supporters of Hilal cheer during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Hilal and Al-Feiha at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on August 19, 2023.

A few days ago, the British passionately celebrated when their team, the Lionesses, made it to the finals of the Women's World Cup in Australia, with hopes that the trophy would be "coming home" for the first time since 1966. This was but a small indication of what a medal can mean to a nation.

French players Karim Benzema and N'Golo Kanté, Senegal's Sadio Mané, Algeria's Riyad Mahrez, Portugal's Rúben Neves, and Morocco's Yassine Bounou have also signed with the Saudi League.

Qatar on the world stage

Qatar's hosting of the World Cup in 2022 sparked its fair share of media controversy, too.

Ever since the initial announcement, media outlets (particularly in the West) protested. They claimed Qatar has no football history that would qualify it to host the World Cup.

Often, the debates were laced with racist remarks and connotations.

In "Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game", a collection of academic articles published in 2022, British professor Simon Chadwick displayed a true sense of sportsmanship, as he offered a rebuttal of the racist and Orientalist criticism levelled by Western media against Gulf Arabs.

Ittihad's supporters wave a flag during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Tai at the Prince Abdullah al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on August 19, 2023.

In response to critiques portraying Arabs as lacking adequate passion for the game, therefore being unsuitable World Cup hosts, Chadwick stated: "Such views are at best naïve or perhaps ill-informed, but at worst they are patronising, condescending, and reflect a troubling xenophobia."

Coaches speak out

Commenting on Mahrez's transfer to the SPL last July, Pep Guardiola – the current coach of UEFA Champions League winners Manchester City, for whom Mahrez played – said that the Saudi League "has completely changed the transfer market" and anticipated more such major moves in the future.

Meanwhile, Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp recently expressed concern regarding the late closure of the summer transfer window to Saudi Arabia.

Klopp noted that the SPL has had a significant effect on the renowned leagues of the Old Continent. In a clear dismissal of the principle of fair competition, Klopp called on FIFA to intervene and find a solution.

Football in Saudi Arabia

Sports historian Amin Saati has said that football in Saudi Arabia is nearly a century old.

"Mecca was the first city in the Kingdom where football was practised," he wrote. "The game entered Saudi Arabia in 1345 AH (1927) through members of the local Indonesian community.

"Gradually, Saudi youth began to join, particularly after some schools in Mecca began to teach sports. The following year, the first local Saudi football team, Al-Riyadi, was established in the city of Jeddah."

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation was established in 1956 – the same year it joined FIFA. In 1972, the Kingdom joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and started organising local tournaments, as well as taking part in championships abroad.

Over the years, Saudi football celebrated several achievements on the global stage.

According to the AFC, the Saudi League is still the best on the continental level since 2021, leading over other Asian leagues by 100 points. Japan comes second, while South Korea ranks third.

According to Nielsen Sports, Saudi Arabia ranked fourth among the most passionate nations about football. Nearly 74% of Saudis expressed their admiration of the game and a desire to follow up on football news.

This is only likely to grow as the Kingdom continues to go for gold with its ambitious sports ecosystem, enabling it to become an incubator for world-class footballers.

The Kingdom continues to go for gold with its ambitious sports ecosystem, enabling it to become an incubator for world-class footballers.

Saudi Pro League Media Office/Handout via REUTERS
Trophy stands bright at the opening of the Saudi Pro League's 2023-24 season.

Most important Saudi Pro League transfers of 2023


• Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain, until 2025, for a salary of €300mn, and a total of €400mn over two years.

• Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou from Seville, until 2026, for €21mn, and a yearly salary of €15mn.

• Serbian forward Alexander Mitrovic, until 2026, for €50mn.

• Brazilian Malcom Filipe de Oliveira from Russian Zenit for €60mn.

• Sergej Milinković-Savić from Lazio, until 2026, for €40 million, with an annual salary of €20mn.

• Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea for £23mn and an annual salary of €30mn, until 2026.

• Ruben Neves from Wolverhampton, until 2026, for €55mn.


• Franck Kessié for €64mn over 3 years, until 2026.

• Algerian Riyad Mahrez from Manchester City, until 2027, for €30mn, with an annual salary of €30mn.

• Roberto Firmino for 3 years, until June 2026. No financial details were disclosed regarding the deal.

• Édouard Mendy from Chelsea, until 2026, for £16/17 million and an estimated annual salary of €12mn along with €4mn in incentives.


Saudi Pro League Media Office/Handout via REUTERS
Opening of 2023-2024 Saudi Pro League in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 7 August 2023. Al Nassr coach Luis Castro with Sadio Mane and teammates during the ceremony.

• Sadio Mané from Bayern Munich for three years, until 2026, for €40mn, and €40mn as an annual salary.

• Alex Telles from Manchester United, until 2025, for £4mn, with an annual salary of £7mn and other incentives.

• Seko Fofana from Lens for 3 years, until 2026, for about €30.20mn.

• Marcelo Brozovic from Inter Milan for €18mn.


• Jordan Henderson from Liverpool for 3 years, until 2026, for £12mn, with a weekly salary of £700,000.

• French forward Moussa Dembele until 2027 as a free agent following the expiry of his contract at Olympique Lyonnais.

• Scottish defender Jack Hendry from the Belgian Club Brugge.


Ittihad's French forward Karim Benzema vies for the ball with Wehda's Saudi midfielder Abdulkareem al-Qahtani during a Saudi Pro League football match at King Abdul Aziz Stadium in Mecca on 28 August 2023.

• Brazilian Fabinho from Liverpool for £40mn, with a weekly salary of £425,000.

• Portuguese Jota from Celtic for 3 years for £25mn, joining Benzema and Kanté.

• Karim Benzema as a free agent following the expiry of his contract at Real Madrid.

• N'Golo Kante as a free agent following the expiry of his contract at Chelsea.


• Moroccan Jawad El Yamiq for two seasons from Valladolid.


• Alex Collado, former Barcelona player, on loan from Real Betis for a year.


  • Belgian defender Denayer, until 2025.

(Source: Transfermercato)

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