Riyadh and Doha continue war for influence on the pitch

By Alexis Billebault
Posted on Monday, 5 October 2020 11:42

The Saudi Crown Princes, Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS) and Emirati, Mohammed Ben Zayed (MBZ)
The Saudi Crown Princes, Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS) and Emirati, Mohammed Ben Zayed (MBZ). © STRINGER / AFP

After the failure this summer to takeover UK football club Newcastle, Saudi Arabia is trying to catch up in sports diplomacy.

In Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jeddah, Bayern Munich’s recent supporters breathed a huge sigh of relief when the German club won the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) on 23 August in Lisbon (1-0).

Although the German club has been sponsored by Qatar Airways since 2017 to the tune of 10 million euros a year, and has been staging an internship in Doha every winter since 2011, a Paris victory would have been experienced as a real humiliation in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Since 2011, PSG has been the exclusive property of Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), and the French club’s sporting success at the European level is haunting Saudi and Emirati princes.

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Since May 2017, Qatar has been under economic blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. These countries, and a few others (Bahrain) have broken off diplomatic relations with Doha, on the grounds that Qatar is one of the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also finances terrorist movements such as Al Qaeda.

Beyond these arguments, another reason for the blockade is the influence – deemed disproportionate by its detractors – wielded by the small emirate in the region. And even at the global level, through its sports diplomacy.

After being awarded the 2022 World Cup, Doha has bought out PSG, launched the sports channel beIN SPORTS, hosted the 2019 World Athletics Championships, and organized an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Qatari lobbying

Qatar is waving this success under the nose of its powerful neighbors. So Saudi Arabia has also decided to catch up. Or at least to try. Because the kingdom has an image problem, which neither its war in Yemen nor the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi have helped.

So, when the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, was on the verge of completing the takeover of the British club Newcastle United in April 2020, Riyadh saw the tide turning. But in early September, the English Premier League rejected the Saudi project.

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The reason? The creation, in 2017, of a pirate channel (BeOutQ, or Be Out Qatar) linked to the Saudi authorities allowing the illegal broadcasting of the programs of beIN SPORTS, owned by Doha. The Qatari channel is one of the main broadcasters of the English championship abroad.

Carole Gomez, Director of Research in Geopolitics of Sport at IRIS, recalls that in 2018 there were “serious rumours about Saudi investors interested in buying Manchester United”. An initiative torpedoed by the case of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, tortured to death at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Turkey in October 2018.

The failure of the Newcastle case is certainly a stone in the sandal of Prince Mohamed Ben Salman, “but that will not call into question the strategic plan Vision 2030, launched four years ago, according to the specialist. Saudi Arabia is developing a sporting diplomacy, because it knows that the resources derived from oil exploitation will decrease in the medium term. It must therefore find money elsewhere.

“The Saudis don’t want Qatar to get too far ahead. But their investment in the sport sometimes seems messy, unlike the Emirates or Qatar, where the line is clearer,” says Carole Gomez.

Need for recognition

Obviously, these initiatives are also based, whether in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, on a desire to improve their image.

Qatar, which is a small country, needed political, economic and diplomatic recognition, which is not the case for Saudi Arabia,” explains Gomez. And sport is obviously a good opportunity to give a better image of the regime. “When Saudi Arabia hosts the Paris-Dakar 2020, we see, through the beautiful images shown of the country, a willingness to develop tourism beyond than religious tourism.”

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Riyadh’s financial strength can enable it to make substantial investments.

For the moment, this is mainly limited to the organization of various sports events. “But there is a desire to be able to buy a major European club, to inject money to compete with PSG and Manchester City,” says Vincent Chaudel, founder of the Observatory of Sport Business.

What could be better than associating the name of the best player in the world with his country to boost its image? This is how, from the first rumors of Lionel Messi’s departure from FC Barcelona, Manchester City and PSG immediately showed interest. The Argentinian earns the trifle of 60,400,000 euros gross per year, a sum to which are added 10,660,000 million euros in image rights and performance bonuses, which inflate his remuneration.

Figures that only the two clubs owned by the Gulf monarchies can afford to pay for a player nearing the end of his career. Lionel Messi finally decided to go to the end of his contract (June 30, 2021) at Barça, after having for several days considered leaving Spain. It is only postponed for the two clubs that will undoubtedly fight next summer to attract the most famous player in the world.

100 million euros

Manchester City is 78% owned by City Football Group (CFG), a franchise controlled by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and valued at 4.8 billion euro. In addition to a substantial signing bonus, the club could offer the Argentinean an annual salary of approximately 100 million euro.

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The PSG can potentially match such figures, since there will be no transfer to pay. “For the moment, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are well ahead of the Saudis, and only they can carry out an operation like recruiting Messi. But the day the Saudis own a European club, they will be able to compete for stars, as PSG did with Neymar in 2017,” adds Vincent Chaudel. The game is afoot…

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