As superstars Ronaldo, Benzema, and Neymar moved from Europe to Saudi Arabia over the last twelve months, the Kingdom is going on the offensive. The big spending behind the Saudi Pro League, backed by the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund-PIF (the 7th largest in the world with US$776 billion under management), aims to get Saudi in the top 10 soccer leagues in the world. Since 2021, the kingdom invested at least US$ 6.3 billion in sport as part of its effort to diversify its economy away from oil promoting tourism, sports, and entertainment. Approximately US$ 2.8 billion went to football to acquire players, coaches, and upgrade stadium infrastructures.
The Strategy is changing
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) Saudi launched the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project. This led to the PIF acquisition of 75 percent of the top four clubs, namely Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, and Al Ahli. The privatization aims to improve the commercial performance of Saudi Arabia’s pro league bringing in broadcasting, sponsorship as well as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). When MBS was asked if the sports investment strategy can qualify as Sports-washing by Fox News, MBS replied, “Well, if sports washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, I will continue doing sports washing,” “I don’t care … I’m aiming for another one and a half percent. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get those one and a half percent”. Actually, MBS wants this number to hit 2-3 percent by 2026, and he will do whatever it takes to get there.
Vision 2030 and Partnership with Italy
With the Crown Prince coming to power in 2017, the Kingdom transformed its business model and policies and anchored its future economic and social development into Vision 20230. MBS is the champion of this vision, and he claims that KSA’s GDP has already achieve a compounded 66 percent growth since the launch of the strategy. Vision 2030 has a strong anchor in the partnership with Italian businesses as well as football teams and the Serie A league. One of the top vision’s projects is NEOM the 1 US$ trillion-dollar smart city project. NEOM relies on strong partnership with Italian businesses, including conglomerates such as ENI. This partnership was furthered during the September 2023 Italian-Saudi investment forum held in Milan, resulting in the signing of 21 strategic MOUs across green hydrogen, health, desalination, technology, transport and tourism.
What about football?
In terms of Football, the partnership between Italy and Saudi Arabia is strengthening. Saudi Arabia has already established itself as one of Serie A’s preferred locations for the Supercoppa (the Italian football super cup). This agreement was signed in 2018 guaranteeing the Kingdom’s tournament hosting rights for three out of the next five years. Furthermore, at the end of August, Saudi announced hiring the Italian National Coach Roberto Mancini. In his new role, Mancini will be the head coach of the Saudi National team and will grow the national football sector as well as train young talents in Saudi. This acquisition is a major “coup” as in early October Saudi presented its bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034. This bid is already backed by 70 countries.
The Saudi partnership with Serie A goes much further as the Kingdom brings its brands to Italy, establishes broadcasting partnership and seeks to invest in financial distressed teams. For instance, in early October, AC Roma (on of Serie A top team) announced that Riyadh Season (a Saudi annual entertainment and sports festival) will be their new shirt sponsor, for which Roma will receive US$25 million for two years. The sponsor agreement may be part of a negotiation to invest and/or acquire Roma altogether. Turki Alalshikh, Chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority has previously expressed interest to take over the team from the American owners.
Inter Milan is another team that is greatly sought after in the Gulf Countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia. It is known that the Saudi leadership was prepared to buy Inter Milan in 2021, even though a deal did not materialize due to the high price asked by the Chinese owners of Inter. As Inter Milan continues to struggle financially, with over US$ 400 millions debt maturing in May 2024, there is additional pressure to sell the team. Also, the repayment of the bond is burdened by high interest rates that could increase during the next 3 quarters. This may force the Sunning family to sell at a lower price than the US$ 1.3-1.5 billion sought.
With many Italian clubs severely indebted and strapped for cash (both in Serie A and Serie B), and with interest rates affecting their finances, we should expect more Italian team’s being acquired by the cash rich Saudi entities such as PIF and Saudi Aramco. Saudis’ investments, partnership and sponsorship agreement will all have a wide-ranging positive impact on Italian football. And most importantly, it will provide much needed financial resources, improving the competitiveness of the clubs and the overall quality of Serie A and Serie B.
A mutually beneficial partnership
I believe Saudi Arabia needs Italy as much Italy needs Saudi Arabia. The partnership between the two countries, will on the one hand catapult Saudi Arabia to the forefront of global football, and on the other help Italy regain its global football prestige.
About the Creator
Andrea Zanon is an international sustainable development and empowerment specialist who has dedicated his life to reducing poverty, promoting sustainability and empowering ambitious people