Romain Rouillard / Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / SAUDI PRO LEAGUE 21:00 p.m., June 07, 2023On Tuesday, the Saudi club Al-Ittihad formalized the signing of Karim Benzema, winner of the Ballon d'Or in 2022. And is also preparing to welcome N'Golo Kanté, world champion with the Blues in 2018. The oil monarchy intends to make football a new weapon of its soft power.
What if Saudi Arabia became the new Eldorado of world football? The operation seduction of the oil monarchy with the stars of the round ball seems, in any case, to bear fruit. On Tuesday, Karim Benzema officially joined Al-Ittihad, based in Jeddah on the shores of the Red Sea. And several sources, including AFP, indicate that N'Golo Kanté, world champion in 2018 with the Blues and a true darling of the French public, will follow suit. The two Tricolores will therefore join a championship in which already evolves a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. The five-time Portuguese Ballon d'Or winner gave in to the sirens of Al-Nassr last winter.
— نادي الاتحاد السعودي (@ittihad) June 6, 2023
"Sportwashing" but not only
So many stars that had to be convinced to sign in a championship a priori anonymous and devoid of real sporting interest. Unsurprisingly, the financial argument played a major role. Karim Benzema should thus receive the very tidy sum of 200 million euros net per season. A checkbook policy that allows Riyadh to deploy a much more global strategy. "To bring these great athletes is to buy an image, a credibility, a reputation. This can help attract investors and improve geopolitical relations with other states," says Lukas Aubin, research director at IRIS, in charge of the sport and geopolitics programme. Saudi Arabia still suffers from an image tarnished by its relative respect for human rights.
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But this "sportwashing", in other words the use of sport to erase a form of unpopularity on the international scene, is only one piece in the Saudi puzzle. Attracting great players to its local league is part of the Vision 2030 project, presented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last November. A vast development plan that should allow Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy and gradually get out of dependence on gas and oil, whose resources will eventually dry up.
A question of "national pride"
Sport is therefore one of the sectors that Riyadh wants to grow, as is tourism. Two areas that are intimately linked. Argentine star Lionel Messi is, in fact, bound by a contract making him the ambassador of tourism in Saudi Arabia. "The sporting aura of the major players thus makes it possible to promote other sectors in the context of the post-oil economy," summarizes David Rigoulet-Roze, associate researcher at IRIS, specialist in the Arabian Peninsula.
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Through these recruitments of stars at arm's length, Riyadh also wants to become a credible nation in the international sports sphere. "It's not just an outward strategy. It's about creating something rewarding in terms of national pride for Saudis," Rigoulet-Roze said. A strategy that differs from that adopted a few years ago by the Qatari neighbor. "For Qatar, the idea was rather to buy clubs and develop sports media like BeIN Sports. Saudi Arabia is also doing it - we saw it with Newcastle in the English league - but it also wants to create a Saudi league that is credible from a sporting point of view.
Creating a "sports culture"
Because Riyadh is also thinking about the future. If the oil monarchy has already obtained the organization of the Asian Winter Games in 2029, it is eyeing the football World Cup in 2030 and, eventually, the Olympic Games. "If Saudi Arabia wants to organize the World Cup and make a better result than Qatar (three defeats in as many matches in 2022, editor's note), it must create a real football culture," says Lukas Aubin. And, more broadly, "a sports culture", supports David Rigoulet-Roze. "With the idea of encouraging vocations but also a sporting practice. And let sport become attractive to Saudis."
And the authorities of Saudi football do not intend to stop in such a good way since the former captain of the Blues Hugo Lloris is one of the targets of the club of Al-Hilal which, according to The Times would have offered nearly 450,000 euros per month to the doorman of Tottenham. If Lionel Messi seems to take the direction of Inter Miami, the names of Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Angel Di Maria or Romelu Lukaku are regularly mentioned. Enough to give a proud look to a shadow championship, propelled into full light.