Several clubs have attracted world football stars this summer, from striker Karim Benzema to midfielder Fabinho and winger Sadio Mané, after Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr last January.

Last month, Al-Hilal even offered Paris Saint-Germain €300 million to sign Kilian Mbappe, but the French striker refused to meet with officials to discuss a possible transfer.

"Saudi Arabia dreams of becoming the English Premier League," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports economics at Skema Business School.

"The media is paying attention to it and some football fans are wondering which channel they will be able to watch the Saudi Pro League on," he added.

In France and Africa, it is the channel Canal +, well known to football fans, which has obtained the rights to broadcast the championship for the next two seasons.

Only five years after opening its borders to non-Muslim tourists and allowing women to drive, Saudi Arabia is trying to open up its conservative and long-closed society abroad.

Senegalese striker Sadio Mané, formerly at Bayern Munich, here on April 19, is one of the stars to have joined the Saudi league in the summer of 2023 © Christof STACHE / AFP / Archives

The world's largest oil exporter has spent hundreds of millions of euros on sport: the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Jeddah Formula 1 Grand Prix or the lucrative LIV Series golf circuit for example.

"The market has changed"

These initiatives are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's major plans to modernize the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

The kingdom wants "the compass of professional football to point to the Middle East and the Arab world," according to Moqbel Al-Zabni, editor-in-chief of Al Riyadiah newspaper.

The signing of star Cristiano Ronaldo in January from Al-Nassr, a club based in the country's capital Riyadh, has drawn worldwide attention to the Saudi Pro League.

The kingdom, thanks to staggering salaries, has since attracted both confirmed stars and up-and-coming players and high-level coaches.

"I've been working in sport for 40 years and I've never seen a project so big and so ambitious," British director Peter Hutton, who sits on the Saudi league's board, told the BBC.

Striker Karim Benzema during his welcoming ceremony in Saudi Arabia at Al-Ittihad club in Jeddah on June © 8 - / AFP/Archives

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said the Saudi league had "completely changed the market" and expects other players to follow suit, with the 18 teams each having eight foreigners.

"Challenges at all levels"

For some, these investments also serve to divert attention from the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

"Most of the headlines are about transfers of big players to Saudi Arabia and not about the long prison sentences handed down to activists," a Western diplomat based in Riyadh told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"There are challenges at all levels," he added, especially with regard to the respect of contracts and the rights of new players.

In June, FIFA imposed a transfer ban on Al-Nassr over the non-payment of compensation owed to English club Leicester after the transfer of Nigerian Ahmed Musa.

Saudi football still has a long way to go, according to Simon Chadwick.

"We'll probably have to wait the next five to ten years to determine if there is lasting change," he says.

© 2023 AFP