Earlier this week, a Saudi Arabian club reportedly offered French soccer superstar Kylian Mbappé the biggest contract in sports history: $776 million for just one season. Mbappé is not just any superstar, either: Already a World Cup winner and entering his prime at just 24 years old, he’s wanted by the world’s richest clubs, and his name has rarely been linked to a move to the Saudi league before. But the Arab nation has already signed other soccer greats—most notably the highly decorated Cristiano Ronaldo—and it made a play for Argentine legend Lionel Messi just weeks ago.
Change is clearly afoot, and the bold moves are emblematic of the soft power that Saudi Arabia is seeking to buy with its deep pockets.
The country’s sports investments are spearheaded by its sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Since 2016, the PIF has been tasked with leading an overhaul of Saudi Arabia’s economy to shift the country away from its reliance on oil. Priorities include weaning Saudi citizens off of government entitlements and attracting foreign direct investment. These efforts are part of Saudi Arabia and bin Salman’s grand plan, known as Vision 2030, to modernize the country. “The Saudis are involved in a major cultural and economic transformation of their country,” says Bernard Haykel, a professor of near eastern studies at Princeton University who has met the Crown Prince.
After bin Salman’s mandate, a series of high-profile sports investments followed. This summer, the country’s soccer league has gone on a signing spree that is years in the making when seen in the context of other transactions. The upstart golf venture LIV, which burst onto the scene in 2022 with unprecedented paydays for major stars such as Phil Mickelson, shocked the sports world—and the U.S. congress—by striking a deal earlier this year to merge with the PGA Tour. And in 2021, a Saudi-associated investment group ruffled feathers in the U.K. by taking over the historic club Newcastle United. Amanda Staveley, the British businesswoman known for leading the Newcastle deal, was revealed to be at least indirectly involved in LIV/PGA negotiations by emails revealed by a Senate investigation.
These investments have stirred up resentment among league officials, the press, and even some players—though not all. Some of that initial acrimony has since turned to a resignation of the new reality in the business of sports.
“Sports are the biggest part of pop culture because so many athletes cross over into the commercial realm,” says Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University, in Oregon, who studies the politics of sports. “Fans invest so much of their energy, of themselves, of their identities into sports. It’s just a way of connecting instantly, with an extant fan base that allows quicker movement on the sort of ideological maneuvering that sportswashing is so much about.”
The sportswashing debate
Sportswashing is a term for when a country capitalizes on the public’s love of sports to launder its own bad reputation. “The spirit of sportswashing is to try to erase negative image-making from the past and to replace it with a more positive smiley, sporty face,” Boykoff says.
When LIV Golf first appeared on the scene as a rival to the established PGA Tour, it effectively split the sport in two. The new league lured away PGA players with the promise of huge, guaranteed paydays. The incumbent PGA Tour promptly banned those players. However, the PGA made an about-face in June when, after secret negotiations that some of its board members were reportedly unaware of, the two leagues joined together. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF’s governor, is set to become chairman of the newly combined golf league.
Haykel saw a more pragmatic approach to the country’s entry into golf. “They’re trying to attract foreign direct investment,” Haykel says. “A lot of very wealthy people play golf. So that was one reason for the golf move.”
This summer, Saudi Arabian investment upended another global sport: soccer. After Cristiano Ronaldo joined the Riyadh-based team Al-Nassr in December 2022 with a contract worth a reported $200 million a season, a raft of other famous players followed in a series of big money moves. The Jeddah club Al-Ittihad signed French duo Karim Benzema—current holder of soccer’s highest individual award, the Ballon d’Or—and N’Golo Kante, with annual salaries of over $100 million each. Following the two are other players from Europe’s top leagues—some of whom are still in their prime’s and could have continued to compete at the highest levels, plus other lesser players who were lured by paydays previously reserved only for superstars.
Mbappé, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, appears like to stay in France instead of moving to Saudi Arabia after reportedly not even meeting with representatives from Al Hilal, the team that was interested in him.
Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad are among four clubs, alongside Al Hilal and Al-Ahli, that have been taken over by the PIF, essentially nationalizing the teams, as reported by The New York Times. The coordinated effort of a single financial entity across multiple teams is unusual outside of American sports, which operate under a model in which the league owns the teams and the individual “owners” are technically holders of “franchise” rights. But this isn’t the first attempt to introduce a franchise model to soccer: A “Super League” including many of the richest clubs from across the U.K. and continental Europe—several of them owned by American businessmen—briefly attempted to break away before it collapsed under a surge of fan protest. Nobody at the time predicted that a Super League might emerge in the desert.
The coordinated effort of this summer’s soccer signings serves as a reflection of the central role the PIF plays in shaping the country’s cultural transformation. “PIF is the heart of all of these plans,” says Sara Bazoobandi, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who authored a paper about the PIF’s evolution under bin Salman.
Despite sports and entertainment representing just 1.6% of the PIF’s total investments, according to its 2021 annual report, it’s vital to the country’s effort to rebrand itself to the world and perhaps even more so to its own citizens. Soccer, in particular, plays a key role in the national Saudi consciousness, according to Haykel. “What they want to do is move their population, which is already soccer crazy, away from a certain fundamentalist version of Islam as a source of legitimacy and identity to focusing on Saudi Arabian identity,” he says. “And soccer and sports are extremely important in that effort.”
Some of the experts Fortune spoke to sought to differentiate between how these sports investments are perceived domestically and abroad. In fact, some are skeptical these are even meant for an international audience at all.
“I think the reasons are principally domestic,” Haykel says, explaining the Saudi motivation to invest in sports, “and not necessarily international, in the sense of appealing to a particular liberal audience in the West, or to hide from their human rights record; because their human rights record is terrible, and everyone knows it. These are authoritarian regimes.”
In 2018, Saudi Arabia received global condemnation, and was subjected to U.S. sanctions, for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A CIA intelligence report in 2021 concluded that bin Salman likely sanctioned the murder.
Boykoff though, says that sportswashing for a domestic audience is sportswashing nonetheless. “That’s one thing I feel a lot of people miss but that is absolutely crucial to understanding sportswashing: the domestic audience,” he says. “It’s less about me and you.”