By Talek HARRIS
Al Nassr’s surprise capture of football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is the latest in a string of high-profile sports acquisitions by oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
The conservative Gulf monarchy, often criticised over its human rights record, is attempting to burnish its image and attract foreign interest as it diversifies its economy away from oil.
Here are some of the moves that have turned Saudi Arabia into a major player in sports:
– Winter sports –
Saudi Arabia, a mostly desert country where summer temperatures touch 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), raised eyebrows in October when it was chosen to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
The event, which has already earned the wrath of environmental campaigners, will be held at NEOM, an under-construction $500 billion megacity that is planning a year-round winter sports complex.
Five years later, the capital Riyadh will put on the 2034 Asian Games, an Olympic-style multi-sports event. Hosting an Olympics is the kingdom’s “ultimate goal”, Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal told AFP in August.
– Formula One –
The glitzy world of F1 zoomed in to Jeddah, the Red Sea city that is a gateway for pilgrims headed to Mecca, in 2021 with a night race flanking the coastline. It is one of four grands prix to be held in the wealthy Gulf this year.
Last year’s edition was overshadowed by an attack by Huthi rebels from Yemen, Saudi’s war-torn neighbour, that left oil facilities belching black smoke within sight of the circuit during practice sessions.
– Football –
In October 2021, well before the swoop for Ronaldo, a Saudi-funded consortium completed its takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United following a protracted wrangle with regulators.
Fans of the “sleeping giant”, who had been at odds with the previous owner for years, celebrated by donning Arab headdresses at St. James’s Park stadium. Newcastle have enjoyed a rise in fortunes and currently lie third in the table.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, which will host the 2027 Asian Cup and hopes to hold the women’s edition in 2026, has held talks with Egypt and Greece about a joint World Cup bid, according to officials.
– Golf –
Saudi money has created a schism in the golf world with the heavily funded LIV Tour, which has lured some top players with record-breaking prize money and eye-watering signing-on fees.
Former world number one Dustin Johnson has been one of the prime beneficiaries, scooping $35 million in total prize money in the inaugural season — on top of a reported $150 million just for agreeing to play.
Despite enraging golf’s establishment, LIV will expand its 54-hole, part-team format this year with a 14-tournament international schedule offering a record $405 million in prize money.
– Boxing –
British heavyweight Anthony Joshua has fought twice in Saudi Arabia, earning a big payday each time while swatting off criticism over alleged sportswashing.
Joshua won his revenge match against America’s Andy Ruiz in King Abdullah Sports City in December 2019, before returning in August last year when he was outclassed by Ukrainian maestro Oleksandr Usyk.
– Cricket –
Last year Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil exporter and one of its richest companies, embarked on a sponsorship of major events organised by the International Cricket Council, including the men’s and women’s one-day and T20 World Cups.
– Rallying –
The Dakar Rally, initially raced between Paris and the Senegalese capital, has been held on Saudi Arabia’s unforgiving terrain since 2020.
Last year’s edition was plunged into controversy when French driver Philippe Boutron was seriously wounded in an explosion that French investigators said was caused by an improvised explosive device stowed on his car.
– Racing –
Saudi Arabia has galloped to the fore in horse racing with the $20 million Saudi Cup, the world’s richest race. The last two editions have been won by Saudi-owned horses, including 66-1 longshot Emblem Road’s victory last year. — Agence France-Presse