Criticism of the sports offensive in Saudi Arabia

Criticism of the sports offensive in Saudi Arabia

As of: May 14, 2024 3:31 p.m

The champions of Saudi Arabian football have been determined. At the same time, Saudi regime critics are warning about the royal family’s long-term strategy.

31 games, 29 wins, no defeat. Since last Saturday (May 11th, 2024) it has been clear: Al-Hilal, the club around the Brazilian Neymar, is the Saudi football champion. The first champions after the country’s major investment drive in the Saudi Pro League last year. The strange thing about it: Neymar only appeared in three league games. Due to his torn cruciate ligament, he only played just over 200 minutes in the league. According to media reports, he receives an annual basic salary of around 80 million euros.

Over 10,000 kilometers away in Washington DC, hardly anyone is interested in Al-Hilal’s championship. At the beginning of May, several dissidents living in exile met at a conference organized by the Arab Rights & Research Center (ACCR), a non-governmental organization that advocates for political and social reforms in Saudi Arabia. Lina al-Hathloul now lives in Belgium, but she faces harsh consequences in her home country for many of the things she says: “You can’t talk about social or political problems. Dissidents immediately end up in prison.”

Money for football from the state investment fund

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose abbreviation “MBS” itself is reminiscent of the brand name of some soccer stars, the kingdom knows no limits to investment in sport. Mohammed bin Salman recorded his plan under the state doctrine “Vision 2030”. The most important tool for this is the Public Investment Fund (PIF) with estimated reserves of $650 billion.

The PIF was once founded for national development projects in order to become independent of oil exports and the administrative authority over the fund is in the hands of bin Salman himself. In 2023, the PIF became the main shareholder in four clubs in the Saudi Pro League, including Al- Hilal.

Death penalty for tweets

Criticism of how the crown prince spends the money is not welcome, says Lina al-Hathloul. “Criticizing MBS is the worst thing you can do. Recently we saw the death penalty being imposed for critical tweets,” says Lina-al-Hathloul. Even though she no longer lives in Saudi Arabia, she cannot feel safe. For ruler bin Salman, sport is a long-term strategy. The WTA tennis finals will be played in Saudi Arabia in autumn. The FIFA Club World Cup took place here last year, and the World Cup is scheduled to follow in 2034. FIFA has not yet awarded the tournament, but Saudi Arabia is the only applicant.

BBC: Research into targeted killings

A current investigation by the BBC shows how the regime in Saudi Arabia is carrying out its plans at all costs. It’s about the Neom project, a vision of the Gulf state in which futuristic and highly modern residential areas are to be built. More than 6,000 people were relocated to build one of the settlements. A resident who refused to give up his property was shot dead, according to the BBC. According to the government, he attacked security forces. A whistleblower told the BBC that years ago he was asked to shoot people who wouldn’t leave their homes.

It is not the first death linked to Mohammed bin Salman’s regime. In 2018, Saudi journalist Jamaal Kashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul. The columnist for the US Washington Post was considered a major critic of bin Salman. Under international pressure, the Saudi regime admitted his death was deliberate. While numerous people close to the Crown Prince were held responsible for the crime, he himself still denies being involved.

The legal scholar Abdullah Alaoudh also lives in exile and knew Kashoggi well, describing him as a “family friend” at the conference in Washington. “His assassination was a testament to Saudi Arabia’s true face.” Kashoggi would have had great influence through his connections at home and abroad. “They fear people who can convince the public in Saudi Arabia and abroad at the same time.”

Sport as international legitimacy

That’s exactly what bin Salman is concerned about when it comes to investing in sport, the activists criticize. The Kashoggi case has shown that the construct surrounding the crown prince needs legitimacy not only in Saudi Arabia, but also through relationships with other countries and organizations. “It is the responsibility of sports organizations like FIFA to take into account how countries like Saudi Arabia are exploiting the system,” says Alaoudh.

In Washington they do not see the argument that sporting events could have a positive effect on the human rights situation in host countries. “People in Saudi Arabia love the sport,” says Alaoudh. “And that’s why Mohammed bin Salman invests so much, because he wants to control what people love.” There are already future plans for the Saudi Pro League. A large documentary series is to be created.


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