Saudi Arabia’s Sports Investments: Unraveling the Dichotomy of Sportswashing and Strategic Soft Power

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has made significant investments in the realm of sports, both domestically and internationally. These endeavors, ranging from hosting major sporting events to acquiring ownership stakes in high-profile sports clubs, have raised questions about the motives behind such initiatives. Are these sports investments merely an exercise in sportswashing, a tactic employed by nations to improve their international image through association with sports, or do they serve a deeper purpose of strategic soft power projection? This article, on behalf of the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, aims to explore and analyze Saudi Arabia’s sports investments, providing examples and insights to unravel the complexities of this phenomenon.

Sportswashing: A Cloak for Human Rights Concerns

Sportswashing refers to the practice of diverting attention away from negative aspects of a nation’s policies, such as human rights abuses, by promoting positive associations through sports. Saudi Arabia, known for its human rights record, has faced substantial criticism from the international community on various fronts, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, and the treatment of dissidents. Critics argue that Saudi Arabia’s sports investments serve as a smokescreen, deflecting attention from these concerns and improving the nation’s global image.

Hosting Major Sporting Events: The 2018 Formula E and Upcoming Dakar Rally

One prominent example of Saudi Arabia’s sports investments is the hosting of major sporting events. In 2018, the Kingdom successfully organized the Formula E championship in the historic city of Diriyah, attracting international attention and showcasing its ability to stage high-profile sporting spectacles. The event provided a platform for Saudi Arabia to project a modern and progressive image to the world. Similarly, the upcoming Dakar Rally, scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia for the second consecutive year, signifies the Kingdom’s ambition to position itself as a hub for motorsports and adventure tourism. While these events generate excitement and economic opportunities, critics argue that they overshadow human rights concerns and provide a sportswashing platform for the Saudi government.

Sports Club Acquisitions: Newcastle United and Beyond

Beyond hosting events, Saudi Arabia has sought to expand its sports portfolio through acquisitions of major sports clubs. The attempted acquisition of Newcastle United Football Club in 2020 by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), in partnership with the Reuben Brothers and PCP Capital Partners, attracted widespread attention and controversy. The bid ultimately fell through due to concerns over piracy issues and human rights controversies. Critics argued that the potential acquisition was a clear instance of sportswashing, as it aimed to use the popularity of English Premier League football to improve the Kingdom’s reputation while diverting attention from its human rights practices.

However, it is important to note that not all Saudi sports investments can be reduced to mere sportswashing. Some acquisitions, such as the purchase of Al Nassr Football Club and Al Hilal SFC, were driven by a genuine interest in developing the domestic sports industry and fostering a culture of sports within the Kingdom. These investments have contributed to the growth of Saudi football and have provided opportunities for local talent.

Strategic Soft Power: Enhancing International Influence

While the sportswashing critique cannot be dismissed, it is crucial to delve deeper and consider Saudi Arabia’s sports investments within the framework of strategic soft power projection. Soft power, coined by political scientist Joseph Nye, refers to the ability of a nation to achieve influence through attraction rather than coercion. By investing in sports, Saudi Arabia aims to leverage the universal appeal and popularity of sports to enhance its international influence and achieve strategic objectives.

Promoting National Identity and Social Reforms

Saudi Arabia’s sports investments align with its Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to diversify the economy, enhance national identity, and promote social reforms

. Sports play a significant role in achieving these goals by encouraging physical activity, fostering community engagement, and empowering youth. Through investments in sports infrastructure, academies, and grassroots programs, the Kingdom aspires to cultivate a vibrant sports culture and develop a generation of athletes who can compete on the global stage. By excelling in sports, Saudi Arabia aims to showcase its national capabilities, improve its global standing, and project a progressive image in line with its reform agenda.

Positioning Saudi Arabia as a Hub for International Sports

Another aspect of Saudi Arabia’s strategic soft power projection is positioning itself as a hub for international sports. The Kingdom’s investments in world-class sports facilities, such as the King Abdullah Sports City and Diriyah Arena, highlight its ambition to attract major sporting events and host athletes from around the globe. By becoming a destination for sports tourism and hosting renowned tournaments, Saudi Arabia aims to enhance its geopolitical significance, promote tourism, and diversify its economy.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s sports investments also align with its long-term vision of fostering social and cultural exchanges. Hosting international athletes and engaging in sports diplomacy facilitate people-to-people interactions, cultural understanding, and the promotion of national heritage on a global scale.

Conclusion: A Call for Balanced Assessment and International Scrutiny

As Saudi Arabia continues to expand its sports investments, it is crucial to adopt a nuanced approach in analyzing the motives behind these endeavors. While sportswashing concerns should not be dismissed, it is essential to recognize the Kingdom’s genuine efforts to develop its sports industry, promote social reforms, and leverage the soft power potential of sports.

International bodies, organizations, and stakeholders must maintain a vigilant stance and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights practices. It is imperative to engage in constructive dialogue, apply pressure, and encourage transparency to ensure that sports investments do not serve as a cover-up for human rights abuses. The global community, while acknowledging the potential benefits of sports engagement, must continue to scrutinize Saudi Arabia’s actions and demand progress on human rights fronts.

In conclusion, Saudi Arabia’s sports investments encompass a complex interplay of sportswashing and strategic soft power projection. A comprehensive assessment of these investments requires a balanced understanding of the underlying motives, impacts, and potential human rights implications. By conducting thorough evaluations, engaging in meaningful dialogues, and upholding human rights as a priority, the international community can contribute to shaping the future of Saudi Arabia’s sports engagements and hold the Kingdom accountable for its actions.


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