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Weekly Digest #122

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In this digest-

1. Article- Dribbling with Diplomacy: Saudi Arabia's Sportswashing

2. Happiness Quotient From Around The World

3. Did You Know?

4. Entertainment Quotient

-Cover Story-

Dribbling with Diplomacy: Saudi Arabia’s Sportswashing

By: Agastya Rao

“I came, I saw, I conquered” are the exact words Saudi Arabia had in mind when they began their sports buying spree. What seemed as an innocent investment at first, has now revealed something far more sinister than previously thought. It began with Saudi Arabia creating their own professional Golf League by luring top players away with 800 Million Dollars. Shortly after, football stars like Ronaldo, Neymar, Benzema and Mane (and 25 others) were lured away with giant contracts (Neymar- 100M per year) (Ronaldo 200M per year). Why is this big spending a problem? Is it good or bad for sports? Is it sportswashing?

What is the Saudi Public Investment Fund?

With assets of over 700 Billion USD, it is a fund created by the Saudi Arabian Royal Family for the country’s investments across a variety of sectors. Investments are not limited to just domestic, but are international as well. A notable investment was the purchase of Premier League football club Newcastle United. 60% of the fund's resources go to supporting Saudi Arabia, while the remaining sum is in International Investments. It is run by the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud.

The fund spent 2 Billion USD to create its own golf league called LIV Golf, and then proceeded to spend over 800M to lure players to leave the PGA Tour and European Tour and play for LIV. 1 year after getting some of the biggest golf players to jump ship, they merged with the PGA tour, and effectively control professional golf.

Next, they came for football where it all began with Cristiano Ronaldo’s shocking move to Saudi PIF owned Al Nassr Football Club, in the Saudi Pro League for a salary of 200 Million USD per year. The dominoes continued to fall, with European football’s biggest stars Neymar, Benzema, Sadio Mane, getting transferred or signing contracts with Saudi Clubs for 100s of Millions of dollars. Infact, the Saudi Pro League ranked 2nd in transfer spending and spent close to 1 Billion Dollars, trailing just the English Premier League and beating leagues such as the Bundesliga.

The fund also has subdivisions such as Sanabil, which specializes in Venture Capital and was responsible for its investments in Premier League club Manchester city, and football league La Liga.

Lastly, it has used Aramco, its state owned oil company, to sponsor every International Cricket Council, the Women’s Golf Tour as a title sponsor, global partnership in Formula E and investments in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Why are they making these investments-

1) Sports Washing- Sportwashing is a process by which People. Companies or countries try to distract or gloss over human rights violations or repressive activities. Saudi Arabia has a very poor track of human rights violations and consistently ranks low on points such as freedom of expression and women’s equality. Most notably, the Crown Prince allegedly ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

It appears that the reason for the rapid investment in sports is to distract the world from numerous violations of civil liberties in the country. With the country paying star athletes like Lionel Messi over 30 Million Dollars a year to promote the country on social media, it definitely has an agenda in mind with respect to changing the world’s perception of it. What better way to do that, than with associating yourself with one of the world’s most popular sports. Headlines about Saudi Arabia this past year have been more about Football and Golf, than human rights violations! Soft power truly does work wonders, they’ve upgraded from Panda Diplomacy to Football Diplomacy.

2) Creation of Alternate Sources of Income

It's no secret that Oil reserves will eventually dry up, and while the money is rolling in for Saudi Arabia right now, there is no guarantee that it will continue 20 years down the line. Which is why, in a fairly smart move the country is looking towards alternate sources of income in a post-oil world. For starters, they have started to promote their country as an exotic tourist destination, whether it is paying football stars to promote it on social media, or constructing multi-billion dollar eco-friendly futuristic cities, they are definitely on the right track.

Investing in sports usually pays off. For example, Michael Jordan paid roughly 275 Million USD in 2010, and sold the team this past year for over 3 Billion dollars. Sports and their media rights are a lucrative business, and they have already begun selling media and streaming rights to Saudi Pro League matches. Documentaries may also be in the pipeline, a documentary that offers an inside look into Ronaldo and Neymar playing in Saudi Arabia would definitely grab eyeballs.

Is it good or bad for the sport?

There are 2 ways of looking at its impact on sports. The first impact is obviously on the players, many of whom are being rewarded handsomely for signing up to new leagues and Saudi Football Teams. One of the major reasons that players moved, especially in golf, was mainly the increased prize money and the relaxed schedule allowing them to spend more time with their families without having to compromise their financial security. On the other hand, some people consider the money “blood money” and this has led to many stars rejecting Saudi offers, with golf legend Tiger Woods turning down an 800 Million Dollar offer to switch leagues and play in the Saudi backed LIV Golf.

Sports now flush with cash, and rising investments does make it a more profitable venture for those involved in the sports. But the question that athletes and teams must ask themselves when they are about to sign on the dotted line for a cool 50 Million Dollars a year, is any amount of money worth foregoing one’s beliefs? The full scale of Saudi Arabia’s master investment plan is yet to be revealed, but its web is slowly forming, and it's beginning to seem more realistic that money can really buy people anything, even control of one of the world’s biggest forms of entertainment. There are murmurs that the country may be preparing to bid to host the Fifa World Cup, purchase a bigger stake in Professional Tennis, the possibilities are endless, and for now, so is the money 🤑🤑🤑


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