Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF) has been at the forefront of the country’s attempts to impose itself on top-level sport.

Earlier this week, its latest investment saw the group claim 75% each ownership of four Saudi Premier League teams – Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, and Al Ahli (the last of which achieved promotion to the league for next season).

The deals represent a huge statement of intent for the group and deepen its influence in soccer. With the three former named teams this season finishing first, second, and third, the PIF has not just signed any teams – it has taken control of the biggest clubs in the country.

While Saudi soccer is not a powerhouse in world soccer in 2023, the move by highlights the PIF’s plans to make it one.

The league has already seen greater media interest shown in it following the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to Al Nassr. His arrival is set to spark a huge wave of popular transfers to the country over the coming seasons, with Al Ittihad having already announced the arrival of Karim Benzema and also working on a deal for N’Golo Kante.

Its ability to attract the biggest stars and grow the league offering can be understood by the fact that it is not bound by the same financial limitations in place in Europe under continental governing UEFA. There are not the same Financial Fair Play measures by which teams must abide. Players are able to retain more of their wages, with income tax not paid in Saudi Arabia.

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Deals like that for Benzema are beneficial for both sides, with him set to collect a huge reported €100 million a season in wages, while the state is also reported to be paying an extra €20 million for him to serve as an official ambassador for its planned hosting bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

The growing influence of the PIF and Saudi Arabia in soccer is just part of a wider growth expansion plan for the kingdom within popular culture and other sports under its ‘Vision 2030’ initiative. This has been set up to diversify the country’s economy beyond its rich oil reserves and establish a larger influence on the global economy.

The PIF and Saudi Arabia’s influence in sport has been growing for some time. The origins go back as far as 2008 when Saudi Telecom began a partnership with Manchester United. The country’s influence since then has only grown – more recently with the PIF claiming 80% ownership of Newcastle United in 2021. Also in soccer, the country has played host to the Spanish Super Cup since 2021 through a deal running to 2029.

Elsewhere, the PIF successfully created the breakaway LIV Golf series and has come away with a merger with the prestigious PGA Tour. Despite protests and the PGA Tour’s initial stance against LIV, it has now been fully integrated into the sport.

In Formula One, Saudi Arabia serves as an official host location and its state-backed oil giant Saudi Aramco serves as one of the biggest sponsors of the series. Saudi Arabia has also become a prominent venue of choice for the biggest boxing bouts in the world, recently including Anthony Joshua vs. Oleksandr Usyk. Horse racing is but another sport where the kingdom’s influence is being felt, with the introduction of the Saudi Cup and its $20 million purse, making it the richest race in the world.

The growing power and influence Saudi Arabia is wielding in sport has been described by critics as a move of soft power or sportswashing. It is building its influence not just as a source of power but also as a means of diverting global attention away from negative stories.

The country has been accused by protest groups of a long-standing history of human rights abuses for groups such as migrant workers of serious gender inequality.

But, despite these accusations, Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly important in the world of sport. It spreads the message that their global political interests can be prioritized above ethics or morals. It ushers in a sense of acceptance for potential human rights abuses in the world and offers the perpetrators a stage to shine elsewhere.

Image: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images