With a media offensive that has dragged on for several days, star footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has been officially introduced to his new club, Saudi Al Nassr. Saudi Arabia is making so much fanfare because the stunt goes to the very essence of what the country and its aspiring leader want to become.
From his signature on medical tests and an almost royal entrance at Riyadh airport to a televised show for 25,000 fans at Al Nassr’s Mrsool Park. Since December 30 – when his new club announced Ronaldo’s arrival – the Saudis have spread their stunt widely on social media for days.
Half a billion followers
Al Nassr shared a YouTube link on the platforms to follow Ronaldo’s performance. Also a map of which media channels worldwide would be seen. Ronaldo himself made his contribution through his own channels. The soccer star has more than half a billion followers on Instagram and another 100 million on Twitter.
Officially, the Saudi club will pay Ronaldo half a billion for 2.5 years. The real mastermind is the Saudi state and its authoritarian leader Mohammed Bin Salman. Since his stormy advance and assumption of power, the crown prince has increasingly bent the desert state to his will economically, politically and culturally-socially. The offensive surrounding Ronaldo’s arrival should highlight his strategy for Saudi Arabia.
The monster deal is a marriage of convenience between superbrand Ronaldo and a state that wants to go global. Emotionally, you can see Ronaldo’s move as a star footballer’s lightning strike. He ended up on the bench at both his former club Manchester United and Portugal and will make further fortunes in the final days of his career in a country that is nothing football-wise,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitics at SKEMA Business School in Paris .
“At the same time, it makes a lot of sense rationally. Saudi Arabia invests billions in sports, more every year, and Ronaldo is a public statement to emphasize that Saudi Arabia wants to become the most important football country in Asia, if not more. For Ronaldo, there is the money, but also the extension of his life and relevance as a footballer. His arrival almost certainly fits with a planned Saudi Arabian bid for the World Cup in 2030. If successful – the decision will be made in 2024 – he will continue to be in world football’s spotlight after the age of 45.’
Emotionally, you can see Ronaldo’s move as a star footballer’s lightning strike. But rationally it makes a lot of sense, for Saudi Arabia and for Ronaldo.
There is no official candidacy yet. But there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia – presumably along with Egypt and Greece – aims to host the World Cup in football in 2030. That would amount to the merging of a double track, strategically pursued by leader Bin Salman: Saudi -Arabia as a sports and football nation and as a major event organizer. In January alone, around 25 major events take place in the desert state. In terms of sport, the Dakar Rally is underway, followed later this month by the Spanish and Italian Supercup football in Riyadh.
Higher foreign target
All of this serves a higher foreign purpose, but is also for internal use. Saudi Arabia became an international pariah in 2018 for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. According to the American intelligence services, it happened on behalf of the crown prince. The country nevertheless has a bad reputation in terms of women’s and human rights. The prisons are full of dissidents.
With investments in sports, entertainment, culture and tourism, Saudi Arabia wants to make itself fashionable in global geopolitics. It is supported in this by expensive Western PR companies.
The dubious reputation also carries a risk for Ronaldo. He has many large western companies as sponsors. ‘That’s true, but he can find new sponsors in the wider region. In addition, many Western companies are also active in Saudi Arabia,’ says Chadwick.
At the same time, the investments help make the domestic economy less dependent on energy and create a consumer market for its wealthy and young population. The state fund PIF – which reinvests oil revenues in a number of sectors – put $2 billion into Saudi football last year through a number of companies in its portfolio. The country also has a foreign flagship since last year. It owns Newcastle United in the Premier League, the biggest and most popular football league on earth.
Recently, there is another example of the Saudi strategy. The top cycling team BikeExchange has been called Team Jayco Alula since 1 January. The historic Saudi Arabian site of AlUla is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and Saudi Arabia wants to turn it into a tourist attraction. Crown Prince Bin Salman chairs the committee that oversees this. Jayco Alula also has an elite women’s team, which is unusual because women in Saudi Arabia were not even allowed to drive until recently.
Chadwick expects that after Ronaldo, more footballers will move to Saudi Arabia. It is not inconceivable that Ronaldo will be joined by Lionel Messi in the relatively short term. He already has an agreement with the Saudi tourism office to promote the country. They will serve as influencers and ambassadors to position Saudi Arabia as a legitimate and normal country, a destination that should evoke associations with the best the world has to offer in many fields.”