Saudi Arabian clubs that spent the most on transfers 1:13
(CNN) -- When Saudi club Al-Hilal reportedly planned a $1.100 billion bid to sign French soccer superstar Kylian Mbappe — including $332 million for his club, PSG, and an exorbitant $775 million salary package for the World Cup winner for just one year — it was branded by critics as "sportswashing."
Mbappe could have said no to the offer in July, but, a month later, Neymar Jr. said yes to Al-Hilal, when the Brazilian star left PSG for a transfer of about $98.5 million (90 million euros) plus added, according to multiple reports.
In a period of record transfers, Saudi Pro League (SPL) clubs spent nearly $1 billion acquiring 000 foreign players from Europe's top leagues — France's Ligue 94, Spain's LaLiga, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga and England's Premier League — according to Deloitte.
Despite the Arab country's poor human rights record, Saudi Arabia's profligacy to turn its national football league into a bona fide, star-studded competition demonstrates the seriousness of its ambition.
Saudi clubs, several of which have been acquired by the nation's sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF), have already attracted some of the sport's biggest names.
Five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr on a two-year contract. (Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)
By attracting some of the world's biggest stars to the Gulf states, the SPL wants to "boost competitiveness on and off the field," although it is keen to stress that these foreign players will help develop "young Saudi Arabian talent."
During this summer transfer window, the government-controlled PIF almost fivefold the cumulative value of these four clubs, making them the most valuable in the country, according to estimates by sports website Transfermarkt.
Earlier this summer, the PIF, which is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, took possession of four of the country's strongest football clubs: 18-time national champion Al-Hilal, nine-time champion Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr and three-time champion Al-Ahli. (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Many other big stars have enthusiastically said yes to the SPL, notably 2022 Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema, who joined Al-Ittihad at the end of his contract with Spanish football giant Real Madrid.
At the close of the European transfer window, the four teams owned by the PIF have spent almost US $ 900 million (835.1 million euros) in the purchase of elite international players, according to data from Transfermarkt, which places them among the 20 clubs in the world that have spent the most on signings, along with football giants from England. France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Al Hilal alone paid more than US $ 378 million (353 million euros), more than PSG and Arsenal, making it the second club that has spent the most this year.
The new players join five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed a two-year contract with Al-Nassr, for which he will earn a staggering $200 million a year, according to Saudi state media, making him the highest-paid footballer in the world.
Today, 21 of Saudi Arabia's most expensive transfer players – all international stars – play for one of PIF's owned clubs.
Despite the financial outlay, the SPL is deliberately tight-lipped about the details of its financial bet, with Chief Operating Officer Carlo Nohra confirming to CNN Sport that it was "not a competitive advantage [of the SPL]" to report salaries offered to players and coaches.
The PIF has $777 billion in assets under management, according to its latest report, and aims to exceed $000 trillion in a few years. In 2021, it acquired English football club Newcastle United, before focusing on investments in its country. The club is also now among those who spend the most on players.
Saudi clubs not owned by the PIF are also splurging on big players, with former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, 33, being offered an exorbitant salary of $870,000 (700,000 pounds) per week, according to multiple reports, in a transfer estimated at $15 million (12 million pounds) from Liverpool to Saudi side Al-Ettifaq.
In a recent interview with The Athletic, Henderson said those numbers are "just not true."
"Essentially, the signal is 'we're serious,'" Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School, told CNN.
"We have so much money that, for a player who is ... Coming to the end of his career, we can afford to pay him £700,000 a week, or whatever he's being paid, and still have Cristiano Ronaldo and still be in the market for other players as well," Chadwick said, describing Saudi Arabia's approach to becoming a sporting superpower, adding that the sky is the limit in terms of cost.
Saudi Arabia's love of football
Saudi Arabia follows in the footsteps of other countries, such as China and Qatar, which invest large sums of money to try to become football powerhouses.
It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia's accelerated investment will have a lasting impact or resemble an expensive rebranding effort.
Saudi Arabia's national team has participated in several World Cups and the country's clubs have won several Asian titles. Saudi victory over Argentina at last year's men's World Cup was considered one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's history, with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud granting a national holiday in recognition of the victory.
Al Nassr fans show their support during the Arab Club Champions Cup Group C match between the Saudi club and Zamalek, at King Fahd Sports City in Taif, Saudi Arabia, on August 3, 2023. (Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Club matches can draw large crowds in the Middle Eastern nation. "For example, Al-Ittihad against Al-Hilal attracts 40, 50 or 60,000 spectators, matches comparable to Chelsea against Arsenal or Manchester United against Manchester City," explains Chadwick.
According to Kieran Maguire, co-host of the podcast "The Price of Football," buying star players, some of whom are past their prime, is also an easy win for Saudi teams.
"From the point of view of the Saudi authorities, they get a ready-made product. Everyone has heard of Benzema. Everyone has heard of Cristiano Ronaldo, and so on," Maguire said.
Saudi Arabia's lofty sporting ambitions don't end with the SPL or Newcastle United. The country will host the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup and bid to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
Several media outlets also indicated that the Gulf kingdom was considering bidding for the 2030 FIFA Men's World Cup, along with Greece and Egypt, although it is reportedly considering withdrawing its bid.
Meanwhile, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has agreed a contract under which the Spanish Super Cup will be played in Saudi Arabia until 2029, an agreement that will report to the Spanish governing body between 35 and 45 million euros (between US $ 38 million and US $ 48 million) a year.
Saudi Arabia has a very young population: the country's latest census revealed that 32.2 million people live there, of whom almost 42% are foreigners, and 51% of the Saudi population is under 30 years old. Of this population, Saudi authorities claim that more than 80% play, attend or follow football, the national sport.
Chadwick explains that the Saudi government is concerned about the possibility of younger members of society becoming radicalized or anti-government sentiment such as the Arab Spring, and seeks to offer its population a thriving football industry to keep it appeased.
Although the football industry generates jobs, income, exports and investment, "the most important thing is the safety of the royal family," Chadwick adds.
The Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, had mixed results. Four Arab dictators in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia were toppled, offering a brief sense of victory to protesters, but, since then, new wars have caused a setback of popular movements in the region.
Meanwhile, failed uprisings in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia were followed by years-long repressive measures and an ongoing civil war in Syria.
"What we are starting to see now in Saudi Arabia is the emergence of a new social contract. And the social contract is essentially about meeting the needs of Gen Z," Chadwick says.
"Do you want Ronaldo? You already have it. Want some of the best football teams in the world? You got them. Do you want the World Cup to come to Saudi Arabia? You got it... But we don't question ourselves," Chadwick explained.
Maguire agrees, noting that investment in football "can be considered part of a much broader socio-economic plan, led by the Saudi authorities."
At the same time, this year has seen "a significant increase in the number of Saudis detained by authorities, for example, for posting adverse comments about the country on social media," Chadwick told CNN.
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Human rights group Amnesty International told CNN it has documented a rollback of human rights in Saudi Arabia, including a growing crackdown on freedom of expression and increased use of anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws to silence dissent. Between 2022 and 2023, the organization said it documented an increase in criminal prosecutions compared to previous years.
In 2022, Amnesty International reported the highest number of annual executions in the country in 30 years, with 196 people executed.
"Reputation is important in terms of attracting foreign investment, and [...] Mohammed bin Salman, as much as he has significant financial muscle, needs foreign investment to realize his diversification," explains James Dorsey, author of the syndicated column and blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer".
Saudi Arabia is the world's largest exporter of crude oil, and nearly two-thirds of its revenue still comes from the sale of fossil fuels. But as oil prices regularly fall below what the Gulf state needs to balance its budget, it has focused its efforts on trying to attract foreign investment alongside its efforts to raise oil prices.
Estimates indicate the kingdom has about 20 years to diversify its economy and ensure it is more resilient, according to Chadwick, mostly to finance its Vision 2030 projects, including the $500 billion Neom city, a 000-kilometer-long linear city called The Line and a futuristic plan to renovate the capital.
"Part of Mohammed bin Salman's grand vision, looking ahead to 2030, is his desire to make Saudi Arabia less dependent on natural resources, to pursue a post-fuel economy [including] tourism and entertainment. If Saudi Arabia can become a hub for major sporting events, then that's one way to attract interest to the country," Maguire said.
CNN contacted the Saudi Sports Ministry for comment on allegations that the kingdom has been rolling back human rights and investing in football as a form of sportswashing of its image.
In response to earlier criticism of Saudi Arabia's alleged sportswashing, the kingdom's sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, stated: "People who don't know Saudi Arabia, who have never been to Saudi Arabia, come out and talk about it as if they had lived there 30 or 40 years. That's why I always tell people to come to Saudi Arabia. Come and see Saudi Arabia.
"See what it is, see the people, meet the people. Look at what the country is doing for the future of the people in Saudi Arabia, then you can criticize all you want."
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Saudi Arabia has already disrupted the golf industry and, with soccer, Maguire told CNN, "they feel they can do that probably on a smaller scale, but maybe, ultimately, to generate more interest in terms of eyeballs if they go down the same path."
In 2021, the Saudi-controlled PIF funded LIV Golf, reportedly at a cost of $2 billion, attracting many of the sport's top players from the U.S.-based PGA Tour and Europe-based DP World Tour by offering them grand prize money in dollars, and Jimmy Dunne, A member of the PGA Tour's board of directors, he expressed fear that they would end up "taking over golf."
Earlier this year, the U.S.-based PGA Tour announced it would partner with LIV Golf, a splinter club backed by Saudi Arabia, ending a dispute that has dogged the men's professional game for the past year, and Dunne warned that the sport's governing body had no choice but to reach the truce to maintain some degree of control.
"They have an unlimited horizon and an unlimited amount of money," he told a controversial Senate hearing on the truce between the two circuits.
When it comes to football, Aleksander Ceferin, president of European football's governing body UEFA, dismissed the competitive threat the SPL could pose.
"As far as I know, Mbappe and (Erling) Haaland don't dream of Saudi Arabia. I don't think the best players at the pinnacle of their careers will leave for Saudi Arabia," he said last month.
"When people tell me about the players who went there, nobody knows where they're playing."
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp took a different stance, referring to the fact that the Saudi summer transfer window remains open after European clubs see theirs close: "I don't know how stable it is, and I think the next two weeks will show how challenging it is, because whatever happens there nobody can react anymore."
"I don't know where it will take us, but it seems to me more of a threat or a concern than anything else, because I don't see how to really deny it at this time, what can we do?"
Still, SPL's new director of football, Michael Emenalo, says what Saudi football is doing "is no different to what the Premier League has done."
"There was a time when everything revolved around Italy. There was a time when everything revolved around Spain. What we look for in the industry is an opportunity to compete, and to compete on an equal scale and to improve what exists in the industry," Emenalo said in a press release sent to CNN.
Jordan Henderson — pictured with Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard, left — was offered a spectacular salary of 700,000 pounds per week, according to multiple reports, in an estimated $15.4 million (12 million pounds) transfer from Liverpool to Saudi side Al-Ettifaq. (Photo: Al-Ettifaq Press Office/Reuters)
The chief operating officer of the new Saudi Pro League, Carlo Nohra, told CNN that the league's strategy that money is no problem attracting international stars makes sense.
"We can't expect to be paying market value to attract people to come here at this early stage of our development."
But analysts say the difference lies in the level of transparency, which "simply doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia," Chadwick told CNN.
UEFA has financial fair play (FFP) rules on team spending, while Major League Soccer has a salary cap for its clubs.
Nohra told CNN that, over time, the country wants 0.3% of its GDP to come from football to make it similar to that of the Premier League in the UK economy, from its current value of "0,000 something".
"They currently have no chance of reaching that figure," Maguire said, but added that the SPL could perhaps rank among the top 10 domestic leagues in the world.
"That's doable given how much money they're spending."
"I think they're realistic. They don't say they're going to beat La Liga or the Premier League or the major European leagues," Maguire said.
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When the Peterson Institute for International Economics compared the world's sovereign wealth funds in 2019 based on criteria such as governance, transparency and accountability, the PIF scored well below average on a measure that combined these criteria, ranking in the bottom 10 out of 64 funds. just above the Russian Direct Investment Fund.
CNN reached out to FPI for further comment on its investments in sport, particularly football and golf, and criticism over its lack of transparency.
Chadwick expressed concern about how the lack of financial rules affecting Saudi clubs could dilute UEFA's regulations on the FFP, as well as those of the Premier League, or affect the governance systems of world football's governing body, FIFA.
The lack of transparency of Saudi Arabia's wealth fund has already raised suspicions in the U.S. golfing and political spheres. Earlier this summer, the Senate's standing subcommittee on investigations launched an investigation into the PGA Tour's deal with LIV Golf, controlled by the PIF.
Chadwick told CNN that as long as there is no independent organization overseeing reporting on each league's financial activities, "no one really knows for sure what the exact financial information is."
"This (information) vacuum, this uncertainty is shrouded in a veneer of lobbying, which aims to inflate or overinflate players' transfer values and salary information because it serves a political purpose," Chadwick says, adding that this purpose is to "point."
"It's almost as if football players are becoming kind of geopolitical pawns in a way."
CNN's Chris Isidore, Eoin McSweeney, Eleni Giokos, Andrew McNicol, Tamara Qiblawi and Andrew Raine contributed to this report.