The world of football has been stunned by Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan to turn its domestic league into one of the best in the world. The Saudi Pro League, supported by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, has been signing some of Europe’s top players with huge salaries and transfer fees. But what does this mean for the future of football globally and in Europe?
The Saudi Pro League’s Meteoric Rise The Saudi Pro League was established in 1976 and has been ruled by four clubs: Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli. These clubs have also been the main ambassadors of Saudi Arabia in regional competitions, such as the AFC Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup. However, they have never been able to match up with the elite teams from Europe or South America.
That changed in 2023, when Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a major reform of the country’s top domestic football competition, which involved selling the country’s four biggest clubs to the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund; massive investment in the rest of the league, and acquiring Europe’s most renowned footballing talents.
The PIF, which also owns Newcastle United in England, has a reported net worth of over $400 billion and has been using its financial power to attract some of the world’s best players to the Saudi Pro League. In January 2023, Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in a deal worth more than 200 million euros ($213.78 million), making him the highest-paid player ever. He was soon followed by Karim Benzema, who left Real Madrid after 14 years and joined Al-Ittihad for more than 100 million euros. Benzema had just won the Ballon d’Or award for the best men’s player in the world in 2022.
Ronaldo and Benzema are not the only big names to have moved to Saudi Arabia recently. Several other high-profile players have been linked with moves to Saudi clubs, such as Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah. The Saudi Pro League is also confident of securing Messi’s involvement, as the Argentine star is out of contract with Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the season.
The arrival of star players has increased the popularity and prestige of the Saudi Pro League, which aims to become one of the 10 best leagues in the world and triple its market value. The league has also secured lucrative broadcasting deals with global media outlets, such as ESPN and DAZN, and has expanded its fan base across the Middle East and beyond.
The Effect on European Football The emergence of Saudi Arabia as a new player in world football has raised worries among some European clubs and leagues, who fear losing their best players and their competitive advantage to a rival market. Some critics have also accused Saudi Arabia of ‘sportswashing’, that is, using football as a way to improve its image and distract from its poor human rights record.
However, not everyone sees Saudi Arabia’s football revolution as a negative phenomenon. Some argue that it is a sign of globalization and diversification of the game, which can benefit both players and fans. Some players may see Saudi Arabia as an appealing destination for their careers, where they can earn more money, play in front of enthusiastic crowds and experience a different culture. Some fans may enjoy watching a more competitive and diverse league, where they can see some of their favorite players in action.
Moreover, some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s investment in football is part of its wider Vision 2030 plan, which aims to diversify its economy, modernize its society and engage its young population. By developing its domestic league and hosting major events, such as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2025 and the Asian Cup in 2027, Saudi Arabia hopes to promote its tourism industry, create jobs and opportunities for its citizens and foster social cohesion and national pride.
The Future of Saudi Football Saudi Arabia’s football revolution is still in its early stages and it remains to be seen whether it can maintain its momentum and achieve its goals. There are many challenges and uncertainties ahead, such as the quality and stability of the league, the integration and adaptation of the foreign players, the development and participation of the local talent, the reaction and regulation of the international football authorities, and the political and economic situation of the country.
However, one thing is clear: Saudi Arabia has made a bold and ambitious move to shake up the world of football and challenge the dominance of Europe. Whether this will be a blessing or a curse for the global game, only time will tell.