If Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup trophy it will not only represent a victory for Argentina’s diminutive captain but his unlikely new benefactor: Saudi Arabia. The team may have inflicted a shock, humiliating defeat upon Argentina in their opening game of the tournament, but Messi, paid to be an ambassador for Saudi under a reported £25m contract, could deliver a long-term prize worth far more – a chance to emulate Qatar and host the 2030 World Cup.
After the tiny gas-rich emirate won the right to host the World Cup in December 2010, in circumstances mired in controversy, Qatar wrote the playbook on using the soft power of the world’s biggest sporting event to further its aims – from the big spending western brands which come with the tournament to the attempts to improve its image on human rights.
For Saudi, landing the trophy tournament in 2030 could offer rehabilitation on the world stage for crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was initially lauded as a reformer who might lead the kingdom on a path to modernity, until the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi left it a pariah. The country’s role in the bombing in Yemen, restrictions on women’s rights and its use of the death penalty have further damaged its international reputation. Recently, Saudi’s decision to defy American pressure on oil production has frayed already uneasy relations.
Mohammed bin Salman wants the tournament to help convince the world – and his youthful population – that he has a plan to wean the second-biggest oil producing nation off its reliance on petro dollars, via his Vision 2030 modernisation plan. If Saudi is to repeat Qatar’s feat, it will shine an even brighter light on its international relations – and extensive links with Britain.
Saudi’s plan to “sportswash” its image has seen it muscle in on sports from boxing to golf. It divided the golfing world with the launch of LIV Golf – the megabucks golf tour funded by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, and launched in 2019. Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight fight with Oleksandr Usyk in August at the Abdullah Sports City Arena in Jeddah was attended by Mohammed bin Salman alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino. In 2019 Joshua drew criticism from human rights campaigners when he said Saudi was “trying to do a good job politically”. His last Saudi-based fight was one of several meetings between Mohammed bin Salman and Infantino including the World Cup opening ceremony, they were pictured laughing together.
Aramco, the oil giant predominantly owned by the Saudi royal family and the engine room of the country’s economy, has been busy increasing its profile in sport, with the sponsorship of this year’s Twenty20 World Cup. The $2tn oil firm’s global power was underlined by the scramble by stock exchanges around the world to land its listing – even seeing then prime minister Theresa May traveling to Riyadh on an ultimately failed charm offensive in 2017.
How Qatar snared the FIFA votes to land the tournament in 2010 has been the source of a decade of analysis and any successful Saudi bid would be subject to similar scrutiny. In August it was reported that officials were in talks with Greece and Egypt about a joint bid to host the 2030 tournament, a year after it is due to host the Asian Winter Games. Saudi is reportedly ready to put up $40bn to fund the bid, which would probably see matches held in the winter again given blistering summer temperatures.
Tourism minister Ahmed Al Khateeb last month said the country was weighing the idea, before later stating that it does not have an “official bid” to host the competition. The country’s tourist board has, at least, been alive to the possibilities of the 2022 tournament – with slick promotional packages, daily flights and multi-entry visas into Qatar. Less than a year after signing for Qatari-owned Paris Saint-German in August 2021, Messi was unveiled as a tourism ambassador, promoting staying in Saudi during the competition on his Instagram feed and in TV adverts.
There are even signs that the football has thawed previously frosty relations between Qatar and its neighbours, which were typified by the three-year boycott of Qatar by four Middle Eastern countries led by Saudi Arabia which ended early last year.
Winning World Cup bids are typically accompanied by vast and often controversial infrastructure spending, from upgrading roads and airports in South Africa to protests in Brazil. Qatar’s has been the most expensive, with $229bn reportedly shelled out including building seven stadiums from scratch. More than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the award of the tournament. Saudi has more stadiums than Qatar had, although just two have a capacity of more than 60,000 and most are about 20,000.
A World Cup in eight years’ time would complement “Vision 2030” – Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to build “a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation”. The aim is to diversify its economy as the world weans itself off oil, and includes NEOM, the north-east region which will host a sci-fi city that will carve through the desert near the Red Sea. At 170 kilometres (105 miles) long, and just 200 metres wide, The Line will be flanked by 500-metre high walls of building, mirrored on the outside.
The decarbonisation strategy also involves building the world’s largest carbon capture and storage hub, aimed to trap carbon and allow oil production to continue. Operated by Aramco, in the kingdom’s eastern region of Jubail, it has been called a “false solution” by green campaigners. The PIF last month secured a $17bn loan from a global syndicate to fund megaprojects.
Defence and diplomacy
Britain surrendered any qualms about doing business with Saudi long ago. Defence and diplomacy have bound the two countries together for more than a century. Britain’s defence giant BAE Systems has a small army of about 6,700 workers embedded in the country and Saudi is by far the largest single destination for sales outside its core US and UK markets.
Arms sales span more than half a century, from a contract to supply Lightning and Strikemaster aircraft in the 1960s, to the 1985 al-Yamamah guns-for-oil deal, which was embroiled in corruption allegations. Saudi became a crucial ally of Britain and the US in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, and Tony Blair cited national security in 2007 after dropping a corruption inquiry into al-Yamamah.
Yet despite Khashoggi’s murder and criticism for supplying the Saudi military during the deadly bombing campaign in Yemen, in which its Lancashire-built Eurofighter Typhoons have been involved in a campaign that has killed thousands of civilians, BAE remains deeply entrenched. It sold £2.5bn of arms to Saudi last year, 12% of BAE’s global sales.
Department for International Trade figures show Saudi exports to the UK – including refined oil and ships – rose 18% to £10.4bn in the year to the end of June, while UK exports, including financial services, saw a post-pandemic bounce, up 57% to £3.3bn.
More is to come. Britain is reportedly closing in on the sale of between 48 and 72 more Typhoons to the Saudis, four years on from the signing of a memorandum of intent between the nations – work which would sustain its Lancashire factories for many years to come. The engines for Saudi’s Typhoons are made by Rolls-Royce, with work centred at its Bristol factory.
Separately, Saudi and Britain signed a “memorandum of cooperation” on energy in October. British multinationals, including pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline and petrochemicals group Ineos, have moved to build up their businesses in the country.
Power and influence
Much as Qatar has worked to foster closer links with Britain over the last decade, so too has Saudi. The Observer revealed Qatar has spent more money on gifts and trips for British MPs in the past year than any other country – £251,208 in the 12 months to October 2022, including luxury hotel stays, business-class flights and tickets to horse-racing events.
Last year, a group of MPs was criticised for attending the Qatar-sponsored Goodwood horse racing festival, hosted by Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club and its UK embassy at the event in West Sussex.
Among them was Mark Menzies, who chairs the all party parliamentary group on Saudi Arabia. Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde, whose Lancashire constituency is home to BAE’s Warton Typhoon factory, received hospitality worth almost £20,000 from the Saudi state on trips to Riyadh and Jeddah between 2014 and 2017. During the visits, he met with HM King Salman Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and the governor of the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority.
He is among an intriguing cast of characters with links to Saudi. Lord (Colin) Moynihan, the British rowing Olympian and former minster for sport under Margaret Thatcher, is the APPG’s vice-chair.
Meanwhile, the Tory party’s links to Saudi have been numerous: from former leader David Cameron and disgraced financier Lex Greensill’s desert camping trip to woo Mohammed bin Salman in 2020, to ex-chancellor Lord (Philip) Hammond, whose private consultancy has generated almost £1m in profits while working for controversial clients including the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia has been mentioned 175 times in the House of Commons so far in 2022, up from 135 times in 2021 and 75 in 2012.
In the City, the PIF has shown an increasing interest in FTSE stocks, backing the recent £575m rights issue by luxury carmaker Aston Martin – in a partnership lauded by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll – and taking a $268m stake in asset manager M&G. The strategy emulates the Qatari model, with state-owned investors receiving £500m from FTSE 100 firms this year and amassing a vast UK property empire. It has reportedly looked at buying a 25% stake in Heathrow airport – alongside existing shareholder Qatar. Thanks to its investment in Japan’s Softbank, PIF has stakes in companies from Cambridge chip designer Arm Holdings to ride-hailing app Uber.
But arguably PIF’s most high-profile UK investment has been the takeover of Newcastle United, and its plan to build a rival to Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City. The Guardian has revealed that in August 2020 Lord Gerry Grimstone, then minister for investment, asked the then Premier League chair, Gary Hoffman, to share the league’s legal advice on “a way forward” for the stalled takeover. PIF’s partners on the deal were RB Sports & Media, an offshoot of the billionaire Reuben brothers’ investment operation, and PCP Capital Partners, the vehicle of financier Amanda Staveley.
The Yorkshire-born financier has built a reputation on her connections to Middle Eastern investors and is married to the club’s co-owner Mehrdad Ghodoussi, who tweeted his delight at Saudi’s unlikely slaying of Argentina. Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, the chair of Saudi Aramco, is on Newcastle’s board, as well as LIV Golf, NEOM and Uber.
The investment group was advised on the deal by Edelman, the PR outfit which has a five-year programme, worth a reported $800,000 a year, to promote Saudi across the world, specifically in the US, UK, France, Germany and the Middle East. The firm is led in Europe, the Middle East and Africa by Ed Williams, a former BBC and Reuters executive who in 2020 noted the “swift implementation of lockdowns” and “efficient and effective access to healthcare” in research showing trust in the Saudi government surged early in the pandemic.
The kingdom is not stopping there. In March, a Saudi consortium led by the Chelsea fan Mohamed Alkhereiji failed to make the shortlist to takeover Chelsea amid concerns over proving the independence of any consortium from the Saudi state. Saudi sports minister prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said last month his government would definitely support any private sector Saudi bids for Manchester United or Liverpool.
Minky Worden, a director at Human Rights Watch, says: “The mistakes in awarding the most watched event in football to Qatar must not be repeated. Women, journalists, members of the LGBTQ community and all fans of the game should ask how it could possibly be held in a country where their rights are not respected. The players should not be expected to compete where human rights are so utterly compromised.
“If Saudi Arabia ends up co-hosting the World Cup, it would harm FIFA’s human rights policies and reward Saudi Arabia’s escalating repression. This idea deserves a red card.”