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After Qatar 2022,
the Saudi 2030 Bets on Sports

By Piercamillo Falasca

The grandstand of Al Bayt Stadium during the inaugural ceremony of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup showed Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani with his father (and predecessor) Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seated to his right and FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to his left. Some noticed that MBS is participating in the opening match of a World Cup for the second time in a row—in 2018 in Russia he had watched the Saudi squad face-off against the hosts. This year, his reasons are mainly political and diplomatic.

 

MBS’ was not a simple courtesy visit to Saudi Arabia’s Qatari neighbour; it was an explicit affirmation of a protagonist. First, the presence of the Saudi Crown Prince celebrated the successful normalisation of relations with Qatar after the 2017-2021 crisis. Second, MBS wanted to offer proof of how strong Saudi Arabia’s interest in hosting a future edition of the World Cup was. Saudi Arabia has, in fact, presented a joint bid together with Egypt and Greece for the organisation of the 2030 World Cup. It would not be the first edition where more than one country would host the tournament and the same is set to happen in 2026 with United, organised by the United States, Canada and Mexico, but it would be the first bid from three countries belonging to different continents, therefore to three continental football federations. However, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece are close countries and belong to the same geopolitical space, the broader Mediterranean.

 

For MBS, organising the 2030 World Cup would have enormous symbolic significance, as that is the final date of Vision 2030, the country’s complex and ambitious development strategy that he envisioned and manages. Co-organising it with Egypt and Greece would make the Mediterranean projection of Saudi Arabia very clear globally particularly in relation to the city of Neom—along the north of the Red Sea littoral.

 

According to FIFA practice, at least two editions should pass before a continent can host a World Cup again. In this, the intercontinental nature of the Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Greece bid could be a useful compromise. The potent political symbolism of the joint candidacy has made other bids seem binary, in particular Spain’s and Portugal’s and that of Morocco, which involves Algeria and Tunisia, to split the ‘Arab front’ otherwise more inclined to support the Saudi and Egyptian bid. In short, geopolitics has rapidly gained the upper hand over preeminently sporting and logistical issues.

 

Returning to Saudi Arabia, it is increasingly clear that the country intends to become a global player in the sports industry, catching up with its Gulf neighbours and, in some ways, overtaking them thanks to the greater opportunities offered by the size of the territory and by the existence of a more robust internal demand. Since 2021, Saudi Arabia has hosted a Formula One Grand Prix, while the Public Investment Fund has become the majority shareholder in a major English Premier League club, Newcastle United, and has launched the ambitious and wealthy LIV Golf, a golf circuit competitor to the traditional PGA Tour.

 

Investments in sport expand the tourist and leisure sector and also diversify the assets of the sovereign investment fund in a very lucrative industry: the acquisition of broadcasting rights sports content, in the ownership of teams and leagues of the main sports, in partners active in the new fan engagement technologies.

 

As is happening today in Qatar, there is no lack of criticism from those who expressly speak of “sport-washing,” i.e. the attempt to divert the attention of international public opinion from reputation problems and from the distortions of its political and social system. There is undoubtedly an important marketing component in sports investments, but the goal is much more ambitious: to use sport as a lever to facilitate the modernisation and transformation of the country and of Saudi society. It is no coincidence that Vision 2030 devotes a significant part to the incentive policies for Saudi citizens to engage in sports. Mens “nova” in corpore sano.

22 November 2022