The Arab takeover of football is merely in its embryonic phase, and the Saudi Pro League possesses the potential to elevate football to unprecedented heights
The presence of the Arabs within modern football is no mystery. Empowered through their opulent oil reserves, they have reshaped the whole dynamic of the sport. To some, this transformation has elevated the sport to unprecedented heights, whilst to others, it has had an adverse effect on ‘the beautiful game’ where the competition for accolades yields to a competition of opulence.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that if a deep-pocketed, oil-rich, Arab investor came knocking on the door of a football club, even the most conservative of supporters would find themselves grappling with the temptation to welcome them. This is the overwhelming impact of the Arabic takeover, capable of elevating clubs to the upper echelons of football.
The prime examples of Arab-funded revolutions are right before our very eyes. The Abu Dhabi United Group’s purchase of Manchester City in 2008 set a new precedent, attaining success through injecting vast funds and transforming the club into a global powerhouse.
From battling against relegation at the dawn of the millennium and being labelled as just “noisy neighbours” by then Manchester United manager Sir Alex, to winning several Premier League titles and now becoming Champions of Europe, City have certainly demonstrated a robust change under the Sheikh Mansour regime.
Similarly, the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011 heralded a seismic transformation. Whilst having a strong foundation to begin with, PSG reached even greater heights with Nasser Al-Khelaifi in charge, acquiring the likes of Ibrahimovic, Beckham, Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi amongst a myriad of talented individuals and decorating their trophy cabinet with shining silverware.
This is, by no means, the end of the list, as the recent takeover of Newcastle United through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has already hinted towards a return to glory for The Magpies, who qualified for Champions League football this season. Further, the ongoing saga of Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim’s pursuit to acquire Manchester United exemplifies that the Arab Revolution is only in its early stages.
Another eminent example of the Arab imprint on football is the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, one which the world collectively admires for its sheer entertainment and already-nostalgic memories.
The grand spectacle offered by Qatar, despite early criticisms from the mainstream media, left a lasting impression on fans across the globe. It showcased state-of-the-art stadiums, exceptional hospitality, and a unique blend of Middle Eastern and international cultures, amalgamated with the values taught in Islam. The magical final, so nerve-wracking for the French and Argentinians, yet so fascinating for the neutrals, brought tears of both euphoria and melancholy, and was called by some “the best game of football” they had ever witnessed.
All plaudits go to Qatar for orchestrating such a masterpiece of a tournament, and demonstrating the empowering impact of Arab influence.
Embedded within this revolution lies a deep-rooted connection with an ambitious and transformative plan, orchestrated by the visionary leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is the Saudi Vision 2030, a scheme that aims to diversify the country’s economy, expand into various industries, attract Foreign Direct Investments, and become less reliant on oil.
The Formula 1 Grand Prix is a sporting event which Saudi Arabia hosts on a yearly basis, attracting viewership from across the globe, with many even travelling to Jeddah to witness the action unfold. Moreover, a Qiddiya circuit is being developed to accommodate similar motorsport events like Formula 1 or MotoGP, highlighting the rapid expansion ambitions within the Saudi Vision 2030.
Additionally, the Saudis have also ventured into the industry of Sports Entertainment, signing a multi-million-dollar deal with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), with the country hosting two major events of the brand on a yearly basis since 2018.
However, perhaps the most enterprising and promising investment has only now entered the scene. It is an idea that may break the boundaries of football and completely change the dynamic of the sport, it is the Saudi Pro League (SPL).
The aim of the Saudi Vision 2030 regarding the SPL is clear; attract top international players and managers, improve the standards of the league, and increase the competitiveness of the SPL clubs locally and globally.
This is not the first time a country has injected huge capital into their domestic league in an attempt to improve their global competitiveness. The Chinese Super League was revolutionized after direct orders came from the President wanting the country to host a World Cup. This saw heavy investments from China’s wealthiest businessmen, and international stars such as Oscar, Carlos Tevez, and Marko Arnautovic were signed for exorbitant salaries. However, after a change of heart from the Communist Party, the league’s rise was halted, and a new policy was legislated, capping the number of foreign players a club could sign. One wonders whether the same would be the case with the SPL, and if it is only momentary enthusiasm from the Saudis that we are witnessing. However, journalists have noted that unlike China, Saudi Arabia’s aim is long-term, considering the Saudi Vision 2030, and they certainly have the monetary means to pull it off.
Undoubtedly, the marquee signing of Cristiano Ronaldo by Al-Nassr left the footballing fraternity in a state of awe. A player, who still emphasised how he had much left to conquer in Europe seemed unlikely to grace the fields of the SPL, a league hardly anyone outside of the Gulf nations even watched. It is rather difficult to fathom the astronomical magnitude of the salary he is being paid, a staggering $200 million a year, which is equivalent to $6 a second! Signing Ronaldo was a statement from the Saudis, showing they were not messing about and truly meant business. This watershed moment has led to a domino-effect, which sees a multitude of players now following Cristiano into the Middle East.
This summer transfer window is a make-or-break for the SPL, and so far, they have surely been making more than breaking. Al-Ittihad, last season’s league champions, boldly secured the services of the previous year’s Ballon D’or winner, Karim Benzema, from Real Madrid, and the mercurial box-to-box virtuoso of our generation, N’golo Kante, from Chelsea. The cascade of high-profile signings does not end here, as Ronaldo will be joined at Al-Nassr by Moroccan sensation and Chelsea forward, Hakim Ziyech. Meanwhile, Al-Hilal, whilst missing out on Lionel Messi, who preferred the comforts of family life in Miami, have not ended their pursuits there, acquiring Ruben Neves, who is arguably at the peak of his career, from Wolves, and Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea.
This Arabic takeover of football is merely in its embryonic phase, and the ascendance of the Saudi Pro League, in light of the Saudi Vision 2030, possesses the potential to elevate Saudi football to unprecedented heights.
Yahya Ali is an Islamabad-based freelance contributor. He is currently studying Law at Queen Mary University of London. email@example.com