Using its massive financial resources as a battering ram, Saudi Arabia is breaking down gates to gain access to seemingly impregnable sporting fortresses.

Already firmly embedded with golf and with its tentacles extending to other sports such as motorsport, attention has now turned to a new frontier as Saudi Arabia looks for another sporting conquest in pursuit of soft power.

Football is emerging as a key battlefront in Saudi Arabia’s bid for not just inclusion but also influence in global sports. It’s part of a holistic strategy to position the country as a global player with considerable clout.

To describe Saudi Arabia’s “enlisting” of sport as exclusively for purposes of sportswashing is increasingly beginning to sound like lazy analysis. The voices of the moralists and rights activists trying to mobilise outrage against the Saudi political regime are being drowned out by the voices of those focusing on and interrogating the sheer size of the sporting project and its viability.

It’s clear the Saudis are determined to ensure that the quality of the by-product is just as important as the primary objective of the exercise.

When will the bubble burst?

The football purists and traditionalists who guard the game jealously can’t wait for the Saudi bubble to burst. It’s inevitable, as far as they are concerned. They reference China and the USA and put Saudi Arabia in that “passing fad” category.

Yet, the signs suggest the naysayers face a very long wait. In fact, the deflation might not even materialise. Well, at least not anytime soon.

I don’t see the Saudi Pro League’s frenzied transfer activity plateauing anytime soon. Indeed, analysts and those intimately involved with the project predict it could be 10 years before the slowdown.

Comparisons with China and the US are also beginning to look misapplied with a whiff of false equivalence. The USA and China came nowhere near achieving the level of disruption already caused by Saudi Arabia after just one football transfer window.

Saudi Arabia’s quest for global sports super power status is backed by a formidable war chest. During the just-ended transfer window, Saudi Pro League clubs spent more than £700m on foreign players. That’s hardly a fart in a windstorm. Only the Premier League spent more.

The Chinese Premier League and Major League Football (MLS) experiments pale in comparison to the Saudi League’s spending power.

There was also never any serious suggestion that the Chinese top-flight or the MLS could rival, let alone usurp, any of Europe’s top leagues. Marquee signings, like David Beckham in the case of the MLS, were primarily hired as football evangelists to popularise the game in those countries and not necessarily to effect a football power shift.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia has taken the football market by storm and on an unprecedented scale. The popular theory was that Cristiano Ronaldo would sign for Al Nassr on paper only before returning to Europe on loan. How wrong we were!

Saudi Arabia is an existential threat to European clubs’ dominance of the football transfer market. Players of all ages are showing a willingness to move to Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Saudi Pro League is quickly establishing itself as players’ destination of choice after the Premier League. Of course, the money is good, very good.

The Saudis are not shopping at the bargain basement for over-the-hill stars or fringe players at top European clubs either. They have the financial audacity to bid for the crème de la crème of the game found in the exclusive boutiques where the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Mo Salah remain in the shop window… for now.

There is a quiet acceptance that it is only a matter of time before Liverpool cave in and allow the Egyptian star to leave. They would get a typically Saudi fee for him.

The Saudis are also hiring highly rated coaches. Robert Mancini recently swapping the Italy national team manager’s job for a similar role with Saudi Arabia was another statement of intent.


The foreign stars are coming out to bat for their new football home, talking up the Saudi Pro League’s potential.

The emerging narrative is that top European leagues are losing their shine, with the English Premier League the exception.

Spain remains attractive mainly for the romance attached to playing for Real Madrid and Barcelona. Otherwise, it is no longer as attractive as it used to be. Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga have lost a bit of their old aura.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ronaldo rates the Saudi Pro League higher than the MLS. Would he consider a move to the MLS?

“The USA? No, the Saudi championship is much better than the USA,” said the Portugal captain.

Neymar, who joined Al-Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain, the club that paid Barcelona a club record fee for his services a few years ago, has suggested the Saudi Pro League could already be bigger than French Ligue 1.

“For the names that went to Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saudi league is better than the French,” said the Brazilian star.

UEFA may have dismissed the idea of Saudi Pro League clubs participating in European club competitions, but that seed has already been planted. Could it be that the idea was deliberately put out there to test European football authorities’ reaction and public sentiment?

The Ronaldo factor

The Saudi transfer blitz started with the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. That opening salvo in January 2023 was followed by a devastating blitzkrieg during the following transfer window. The Saudis brought in more high-profile reinforcements, players who have distinguished themselves at the highest level for club and country. The “money is no object” transfer strategy is straight from the shock-and-awe playbook.

Whether the Saudi football project  would have taken off the way it has without that first move to sign Ronaldo is open to debate. The consensus is that securing Ronaldo’s signature was a masterstroke.

It’s safe to attribute the influx of top foreign talent to the Saudi Pro League to the Portuguese superstar’s endorsement of the league. Hordes of foreign football talent, the crème de la crème of world football, players only a few European clubs can afford, are moving to Saudi Arabia.


The varied profiles of players moving to the Saudi Pro League means the league will escape the “retirement home” derision routinely aimed at the MLS and Chinese Premier League. The age range of the recruits suggests the Saudi Pro League is not primarily a place were players in the twilight of their careers go to for a last hurrah.

There has also been an attempt to label players moving to Saudi Arabia as mercenaries only motivated by money.

That argument is difficult to sustain without painting selling clubs with the same brush. I’m not aware of a single player who agitated for a move or downed tools for force a transfer to Saudi Arabia. In fact, a few looked like reluctant departures after their clubs had accepted attractive offers they couldn’t refuse.

Liverpool, notably, knocked back a bid for Mo Salah, but that was because the offer came late in the transfer window leaving the club with no time to find a suitable replacement. The same Liverpool readily sold Jordan Henderson and Fabinho to Saudi clubs .

The general feeling is that it is only a matter of time before Liverpool cave in and allow Salah to leave. January is just around the corner when Liverpool and European clubs’ collective resolve will be tested, again.

Here to stay

The Saudi project is neither a flight of fancy nor the vanity project by a political regime with more money than sporting sense some make it out to be. It is a carefully conceived project designed to serve a strategic agenda bigger than football and much bigger than sport.

It isn’t just a place at global sport’s top table Saudi Arabia is buying, but a sizeable chunk of soft power.


I'm Barrie Jarrett, born in Leeds, lived over a decade in South Africa, CEO And Co Founder of Planet Sport Limited and Planet Bet Limited.

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