It may have escaped your notice, but during this summer, Saudi Arabia has been busy securing the signatures of some of the most coveted talents in global football. Cristiano Ronaldo made his move at the beginning of 2023, followed by Karim Benzema, another prominent player who joined him in the Middle East. Furthermore, discussions are underway for the transfer of four Chelsea players to the Saudi Pro League.
So, why has Saudi Arabia decided to start investing so heavily in building up the SPL – Saudi Pro League?
Why the Sudden Interest?
The nation’s economic dependence on oil revenue won’t last forever, thus we see the need for economic diversification. To achieve this objective, they employ the PIF, their sovereign wealth investment fund.
Among the various sectors earmarked for expansion within the country, sports stand out more than any other…. Which includes their football league. The intention is to foster a growing leisure and entertainment sector while capitalising on the Saudi people’s famous love of the game.
A Growing Industry
Football is very popular in Saudi Arabia – and it was the most supported team at the Qatar World Cup… they even managed a win against the eventual winners, Argentina, in the group stages. You simply have to compare independent UK casinos and bookmakers – and you’ll see that there is an increased demand for betting on the league.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia have seen how much interest it is attracting – and they are looking to capitalise on it.
But with all the money Saudi Arabia has to spend on it – should European clubs be afraid? According to UEFA president, Aleksander Ceferin, apparently not.
Is This a Flash in the Pan?
Parallels are obviously being drawn between this situation and the inception of China’s Super League in 2004. Back then, we witnessed the sudden transfers of big-name players like Brazil’s Oscar and West Ham’s Marko Arnautovic to the Far East.
In China’s case, the establishment of their Super League was a direct directive from the president. The goal was to elevate China’s status by hosting the World Cup, strengthening the national team and nurturing a domestic league. However, the Chinese Communist Party experienced a change of heart. They became concerned about the substantial outflow of money from China to Europe and benefiting foreign entities. This led to a shift in policy, resulting in the implementation of various regulations aimed at controlling the number of foreign players in the Chinese Super League.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has set its sights on a long-term vision. Notably, Saudi Arabia has more financial resources – and there is a real sense of determination in their approach. However, this initiative is still in its early stages and we expect it to unfold over time rather than fade away. Reliable sources indicate that Saudi Arabia aims to attract 100 of the finest foreign players to its league within the next five years.
The debut of Cristiano Ronaldo is a massive step – and although they failed to secure Lionel Messi’s signature despite a staggering $400 million annual offer, Saudi Arabian clubs remain undeterred. There are ongoing negotiations for Ruben Neves to join Al Hilal and discussions involving four Chelsea players—Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech included—are in progress regarding their potential move to the state.
The prospect of Saudi Arabian clubs targeting players like Erling Haaland or Harry Kane remains open-ended. Anything is possible… and they have money to throw at it.
Have They Changed the Transfer Market Forever?
This summer we have seen a massive change in the dynamics of transfers – and even players previously considered off the market – such as Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son are now subject to significant interest. Despite Tottenham’s stance that Son is not available for transfer, the Saudi clubs are making their interest known.
Saudi Arabia possesses the financial power to secure the signature of virtually any player they want – as long as that player wants to make the move. While many players in the prime of their careers will usually decline such offers, there’s been a slight shift – as we saw with Wolves’ Ruben Neves. Despite being a sought-after target for major clubs like Liverpool, Barcelona, and Manchester United, the 26-year-old midfielder at the pinnacle of his career, has chosen to make Saudi Arabia his home… because money talks.
Ultimately, the landscape of the transfer market has changed massively. Traditional clubs now face huge competition from Saudi Arabian teams and this could see money swapping hands like never before.