New research gives picture of Saudi Arabian sports investment

New research claims to show the extent and scale of Saudi Arabian state investment and involvement in sport for the first time.

The report published by Play the Game – run by the Danish Institute for Sport Studies, which is funded by the country’s government – found 312 sponsorship deals across 21 sports, as well as multi-sport events.

Play the Game’s data was released days after the gulf kingdom was confirmed as the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup.

The research details how football is the main focus with 83 of the 312 deals – motorsport, with 34 deals, and golf, with 33, are the two sports with the greatest number of agreements after that.

The research suggests 139 of the deals are connected directly to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF), that estimates its wealth assets at $700bn (£574bn), and which also owns Newcastle United.

Both the PIF and Saudi Sports Ministry have been approached for comment.

In June, Newcastle confirmed PIF-owned events company Sela as their new shirt sponsor on a multi-year deal, one of a number of Saudi partnerships it now has.

This year, PIF also took over four leading Saudi Pro League football clubs.

In addition, it owns and finances the LIV Golf series.

In October, the country’s tourism board Visit Saudi became the main sponsor of the new African Football League, and the official global partner of the Asian Football Confederation. It also has a sponsorship deal with Spain’s La Liga.

Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Aramco, meanwhile, is a major sponsor of Formula 1 and has a global partnership with the International Cricket Council, the sport’s world governing body.

Play the Game researcher Stanis Elsborg told BBC Sport that the research was based on publicly available information and represents “a minimum” figure.

“Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy is run by a small group of individuals that hold important positions inside and outside sport at the same time,” he said.

“We wanted to show that these people engage in world politics on behalf of Saudi Arabia, both as representatives of the sports world but mainly as state representatives of the geo-political interests of Saudi Arabia.”

Earlier this year, in a US court case, documents published by LIV Golf’s lawyers described the PIF as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan – the chairman of both Aramco and Newcastle United – as “a sitting minister of the government”.

Saudi Arabia has been criticised for its human rights violations – 81 men were executed on one day last year – women’s rights abuses, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the restriction of free speech and the war in Yemen.

The country’s international standing was severely damaged by the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist who was a prominent critic of the government.

Human rights campaigners say sport is being used by the Saudi government to detract from long-standing reputation issues, a process known as ‘sportswashing’.

Environmental campaigners have also raised their concerns.

Freddie Daley, from environmental campaign group Badvertising, said: “Saudi Arabia’s push into sport is a concerted, targeted and strategically astute effort for the country to bolster its standing on the world stage and leverage the soft power of sport.”

Daley said Saudi Arabia is a “country deeply dependent on fossil fuels” and that its “massive presence within sport” allows it to continue “promoting and normalising high-carbon products to billions of fans”.

He added: “This research shows how extensively global sport is becoming intertwined with Saudi investment and hosting the World Cup in 2034 is set to be the cherry on top.”

The Saudi authorities have previously rejected such criticism, insisting that their investments are designed to help sports to grow, modernise the country as part of the ruling crown prince’s ‘Vision 2030’ strategy, diversify the economy away from a reliance on oil, boost tourism, and inspire a youthful population to be more active.

Other oil-rich countries such as the United Arab Emirates also have government-owned companies such as Emirates and Mubadala with sponsorship portfolios including European football clubs, stadiums and high-profile sporting events.

Analysis – Dan Roan, BBC Sports Editor

This research reveals the remarkable level of influence Saudi Arabia has managed to build up in recent years across international sport. And it helps explain just how the country has emerged as the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup, something that for many would have been unthinkable until relatively recently, given the criticism the country has received for its human rights record.

Such sponsorship deals are one plank of a network of investments that also includes the hosting and bankrolling of many events across a range of sports. Just in football alone, Saudi Arabia is due to host the Fifa Club World Cup, the Spanish, Italian and Turkish cup finals, and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.

Is it any wonder, some will ask, that Fifa appeared to pave the way for Saudi’s hosting of the World Cup with a fast-tracked bidding process, and that potential rival Australia felt there was no point in trying?

With PIF riches enabling the remarkable spending spree by several Saudi Pro League clubs this summer, and benefiting top players, clubs and agents, especially in Europe, it is easy to see how the country has built up such power in the sport. And why, despite the disruption to the traditional football calendar that another winter World Cup will cause, it is unlikely to encounter much opposition within football as it prepares to host the tournament.

The Saudi authorities insist that suggestions the country is trying to take over sport – or stage some kind of ‘land grab’ – are unfair, and that they are far from the only country to have invested in sponsorship and events in recent years.

But the level of ambition and reach of influence seems to be as extensive as anything the world of sport has witnessed in the past.