In one of the classics by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, widower Xius doesn’t want to sell his house because of his deceased wife’s memories in it. Bayardo San Román wants to buy it at all costs for his soon-to-be-wife and eventually succeeds by offering much more than the estimated price.
Believe it or not, Saudi Arabia has employed the same tactics over the last few years and has succeeded to some extent.
Contrary to what many think, the most powerful example of their influence doesn’t come from football. It comes from golf. Last year, the way many renowned names from the PGA Tour, including Phil Mickelson, moved to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, it appeared the battle lines had been drawn with no peace in sight. But then in a shocking announcement in June earlier this year, LIV, PGA Tour, and DP World Tour, which was already on the American tour’s side, joined hands to put the matter to rest.
This was no ordinary development. For all its influence and financial stability, the PGA Tour couldn’t resist the temptation of Saudi money. That’s one way of looking at it. For many, another is they feared total annihilation over time – particularly more player movement to LIV Golf which offers a shorter format, big breaks between tournaments more often than not, and last but not least, more money – so they appeared to endorse the phrase “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
The Saudis were brutal in their golf dealings. It was a proper, unrestrained show of their financial muscles. With other sports, they have been relatively less aggressive, for example, football – at least on the surface. They used their money to bring over Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Neymar to the Saudi Pro League and just fell short with Lionel Messi who, as per reports, would have made $2 billion in all had he not turned down the offer.
In a massive boost to the Kingdom, they will host the FIFA Club World Cup in December later this year. But the ultimate crowning glory for them will be if they can win the hosting rights for the 2034 World Cup. The football World Cup is indisputably the grandest sporting event on the planet on all counts. Many believe this relatively quiet manoeuvring on the kingdom’s part in the world of football can be owed to their large-term ambition.
At present, they are overwhelming favourites to host the 2034 edition after FIFA informed recently that the Saudis were the only bidder left after the Australian pull-out. So it’s all over bar the shouting. India too is not untouched as the world’s richest T20 cricket league – the Indian Premier League (IPL) – has “Visit Saudi” (a massive tourism campaign by the Saudi Tourism Authority) and Aramco (de facto owner of English football club Newcastle United) as its sponsors.
Most of these Saudi moves across sports emanate from a $700 billion investor, the PIF (Public Investment Fund) which works at the behest of the kingdom. It’s governed by Harward-educated Yasir Al-Rumayyan who also happens to be Aramco chairman. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is understood to be the mastermind behind Saudi Arabia’s aspirations in the sporting world. In this pursuit, keeping him company besides Al-Rumayyan, are Minister of Sport Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Saud and Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, ambassador to the US.
But why is this sudden urge in the Saudis to make their presence felt in the world of sport? Some believe they want to improve their image of an oppressive regime that reached its nadir in the wake of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, apparently on the order of the Saudi government.
Many would argue that the Saudis have managed to improve their image to some degree. However, none can deny they have engraved their presence into the consciousness of the global sporting audience. Be that as it may, the kingdom will hope not to suffer the fate of Bayardo San Román who neither gets a wife nor a good life after overwhelming poor widower Xius with his intoxicating money.