Saudi Arabia are signing some of the hottest talents in world football this summer – but why is this happening and what will happen next?
In 2023 alone, Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Middle Eastern nation on a free transfer as Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema turned down another season at Real Madrid to join him in the country.
This is by no means the end with no fewer than five Chelsea players set to leave the Premier League for the Saudi Pro League, with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Bernardo Silva and Heung-Min Son reportedly facing offers similar.
Sky Sports News chief journalist Kaveh Solhekol analyzes this trend in the transfer market…
Why is Saudi Arabia suddenly spending huge sums on foreign players?
Saudi Arabia is looking to grow its economy through other industries to secure its financial future.
The country depends on selling silver through oil – it won’t last forever and they need to diversify their economy. They do this through the PIF – the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
Sport is a particular area they are looking to develop in the country and this includes their football league. They want to build their own leisure and entertainment industry and capitalize on the huge interest of the Saudi population – 70% of whom are under 40 – in football.
Football is hugely popular in Saudi Arabia – they were the best supported team at the Qatar World Cup last year, let’s not forget and their side beat eventual champions Argentina in the group stage – and they also see it as a way to increase tourism in the country. .
The level of the league is already quite high and they want to make it one of the best in the world, so bringing in some of the best players around is seen as the first step in achieving that and making the sport a major industry pillar. in the country.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia saw all this interest and they thought: “instead of other people making money from our people’s interest in sports, let’s do it ourselves and keep the ‘money within our borders’. He wants to put Saudi Arabia on the map and raise its profile.
What else does Saudi Arabia hope to accomplish?
The country also hopes to grow its network around the world by investing in football clubs, hence why the PIF bought Newcastle, and is drawing on the wealth of game expertise to develop its own players.
Creating academies and improving the ability of young Saudi players to improve the national team is also a goal.
It’s also about international connections and influence on the global stage, especially to compete with local competitors in the Middle East. Qatar’s successful hosting of the World Cup has not gone unnoticed.
Saudi Arabia also wants to stage a World Cup, preferably in 2030 in what has been touted as the first “World Cup on three continents” – a joint bid with Greece (Europe) and Egypt (Africa) .
Is it a “flash in the pan” or a long-term goal?
Parallels are obviously drawn with China and the birth of the Super League in 2004, when suddenly Brazilian star Oscar and West Ham’s Marko Arnautovic moved to the Far East.
What happened in China is that their Super League was a direct order from the president. He said he wanted China to host the World Cup, have a good national team and a national league.
But then the ruling Communist Party in China changed their mind, they didn’t like the way this large amount of money was flowing out of China to Europe and the pockets of foreigners. They decided to end this and many different rules were put in place to control how many foreign players you could have in the Chinese Super League.
As then, Saudi Arabia’s goal is long-term. But Saudi Arabia has more money. And there is the feeling that they are more serious about it.
It is therefore the beginning of a process and not something that will disappear quickly. Sky Sports News was informed that in the next five years, Saudi Arabia wants 100 of the best foreign players to play in its league.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the first to go, and they tried to get Lionel Messi with a monumental $400m-a-year offer which he turned down to move to MLS instead. But that hasn’t deterred Saudi clubs, with Ruben Neves set to join Al Hilal and five Chelsea players, including Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech, in talks to also move to the state.
So, will Saudi clubs target Erling Haaland? Or Harry Kane? No player has been ruled out in an attempt to bring them to the Arabian Peninsula.
Have Saudi Arabia forever distorted the transfer market?
We saw this summer, for the first time, that with each transfer, Saudi clubs had to be mentioned. Players you think can’t be bought, like Heung-Min Son at Tottenham, have serious interest in them. Spurs have said Son is not for sale.
Saudi Arabia have the money to sign any player they want – as long as the player wants to settle there.
A lot of players at the peak of their career will say no – but I think that’s changed a bit with Wolves’ Neves. He is someone who is of interest to Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United, he is only 26 and at the height of his career he has decided to leave. Obviously, a lot of it depends on the money.
So this has changed the transfer market as clubs are facing serious competition from Saudi Arabia – a very lucrative market has opened up.
Are Chelsea using Saudi Arabia to circumvent their Financial Fair Play concerns after spending £600m?
This is something that has been talked about a lot in recent days. Chelsea have spent £600million over the last two transfer windows and they need to balance the books and sell some players. Out of the blue, suddenly the Saudis came and said, “We’ll have some of your players and we have 100 million pounds to give you.” People on the outside look at it and find it a bit strange – suddenly Chelsea has this way of balancing the books.
People have also said that Saudi Arabia’s PIF – which owns the four Saudi clubs looking to buy Chelsea players – has invested in Clearlake Capital, a private equity fund which is Chelsea’s majority shareholder. People tried to see if there was something strange going on there.
But of what Sky Sports News said, it has nothing to do. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund invests in many private equity funds all over the world and Clearlake has investments in 400 different companies. Chelsea would say there is absolutely no conflict of interest there.