Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions on high-profile international sports and entertainment events. The strategic investment is part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ master plan that aims to reduce Saudi economic dependence on oil – even though it is the power of oil money that pays for these events.
At any rate, the oil-rich nation has invested millions across the sporting world, from chess championships to golf, tennis, the world’s richest horse-racing event and the Spanish Super Cup won by Barcelona this past Sunday.
The kingdom’s sports portfolio includes a Formula One Grand Prix, several heavyweight boxing showdowns, massive investments in esports and gaming, the Newcastle United football club, the LIV professional golf tour, perhaps purchasing WWE, the world’s largest wrestling organisation, and now… Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest football players of all time.
Corralling Ronaldo, who will soon be starting for Al-Nassr club, came with a heavy price, and that doesn’t mean just his record $200 million a year contract, making him reportedly the highest paid athlete in history.
Saudi Arabia must also deal with the criticism that its momentous scale of sports investments, of which Ronaldo is the latest prize, is “sportswashing,” using sports to sideline critical views of a government and serve to launder its image and reputation.
Spoiler Alert: It is presumptuous and troubling to begin selectively applying sportswashing to some countries while ignoring it in others. More on that later.
Ronaldo will have to wait until 22 January to make his formal debut for Al-Nassr in a league game against Al-Ettifaq. World soccer rules require Ronaldo to finish serving a two-match suspension imposed by the English Football Association in November while he was with Manchester United. Ronaldo slapped a mobile phone out of a fan’s hand following a game against Everton last April.
However, Ronaldo’s first game in Saudi Arabia is scheduled to be an exhibition against Paris Saint-Germain on Thursday 19 January and a possible reunion with his career-long rival Lionel Messi. PSG are set to play in Riyadh against a composite team of players from Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, the current Asian Champions League title holder.
PSG are owned by businessman Nasser Al-Khelaifi of Qatar, another Gulf country with grand sporting schemes and one which is also targeted for sportswashing, not least during its hosting of the recently concluded World Cup.
Messi, who last month lifted his country’s World Cup trophy and his first, is believed to be close to extending his stay at Paris Saint-Germain, despite reports of Al-Hilal targeting the Argentinian in a mega $300m-per-year deal, $100 million more than Ronaldo. One-upmanship at its apex.
The amount of money is staggering but the Saudi objective is clear: the arrival of Ronaldo, one of the most famous sportsmen on the planet, will be enough to draw global attention to Saudi Arabia the country and Saudi Arabia the country that defeated eventual champions Argentina in Qatar in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
Riyadh would also like to showcase Ronaldo’s new club Al-Nassr. Before the global icon made his startling move to the Middle East on the penultimate day of 2022, Al-Nassr’s Instagram had around 860,000 followers. These days, Al-Nassr’s Instagram following has risen to 10.2 million followers on the platform, more than every English Premier League club outside the traditional Big Six.
Al-Nassr have rejected claims that they forced Ronaldo to sign a contract that included a commitment to support the 2030 World Cup bid which might include Egypt and Greece. But even if he doesn’t say a word about the bid, Ronaldo reaches half a billion followers across social media. So being one of the most followed people in the world, he can command the world’s attention not just on himself but where he is playing.
This enormous interest is called the Cristiano Ronaldo effect.
And this where and when some quarters call it sportswashing.
Sportswashing is the way by which some countries varnish their reputations by getting involved in international sport, whether that be hosting mega sports events, bagging big-name athletes or owning Western sports franchises.
These are not crimes except that ‘human rights’ are usually injected at the end of the sentence, so now it reads: sportswashing is employed by regimes that use mega-sports events to reboot their reputations and distract audiences from what is claimed to be human rights violations.
Human rights organisations have tried to put pressure on international sporting bodies that have allowed their competitions to take place in countries that reportedly violate human rights. They haven’t been successful, and the reason is usually double standards.
Practically no country is innocent of human rights violations. For instance, it is estimated that there are 136,000 modern slaves in Britain, with 41 per cent of them being children. Isn’t that a human rights violation?
America lives with its constant battle with racism, and the unjust wars it has launched, its pro-choice policy regarding abortions that kill little live bodies in the womb, and its serial mass shootings. Aren’t these human rights violations?
China has been accused of possible genocide against the Uyghur population. It held an Olympics. Russia is accused of brutally silencing its critics. It held a World Cup.
How did they get away with it? Because when placing a moral halo on the heads of Western democracies, it can be asked why they are not called out as sportswashers for their own human rights breaches.
Of its many positives, Qatar’s World Cup shone a spotlight on the way in which the country treats immigrant workers who helped build the stadiums and infrastructure that helped make the tournament the success it was. Rather than shutting down criticism, Qatar sought to listen to complaints, then improve itself by improving migrants’ work and living conditions.
There is also the cultural lens which must be looked into. A country that bars same-sex relationships, as Qatar, might be viewed as a violator of human rights but not so elsewhere.
Much recent media attention has been on athletes’ willingness to compromise moral ground to gain financially. Those with a greater platform have a larger social responsibility to speak out on human rights issues. But there is no legal obligation for athletes to care about sportswashing, nor should there be.
Ronaldo’s move at 37 to Saudi Arabia after conquering European lands is not without precedent. Many senior citizen stars nearing the end of their careers opt for leagues of lesser strength, and where the money is, including countries of controversy. Xavi, Desailly, Gabriel Batistuta, Raúl González, Romario and Pep Guardiola all played in Qatar. China invited Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Carlos Tevez, Alexandre Pato and Oscar.
Who decides who is a sportswasher? And on what basis? One can imagine Western Europe and the US being disturbed by the comparison of their nations with countries they are used to condemning. But the truth is that whenever countries are labelled as being sportswashers, the identity of both the accuser, as much as the accused, is telling.
So the next time there is a Ronaldo-type signing or another World Cup in the Middle East by a country perceived to be sportswashing, supposedly involved in an act deliberately intended to deceive, mislead, divert or obscure, critics should not abrogate themselves of blame for something their own countries might also be doing.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.