Since touching down on American soil a few weeks ago, Lionel Messi – the undisputed maestro of the beautiful game – has already orchestrated a symphony of spectacular goals. From a scintillating stoppage time winner in his Inter Miami debut to his two first-half goals in his second game, the 36-year-old is already leaving his mark on US soccer.
Yet as Messi Mania sweeps across the US, another country stands on the sidelines, eagerly watching the fruits of the Argentinian’s continued triumphs: Saudi Arabia.
A couple of months ago, Messi spurned an unprecedented $400m-a-year offer to play for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia after parting ways with Paris Saint-Germain. Instead, he opted to play for the Miami franchise co-owned by David Beckham. It was an unexpected decision that dealt a blow to the kingdom’s ambitions to attract the sport’s biggest stars to its domestic league.
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has emerged as one of the major players in the sports world. The kingdom hosts an array of international sports events, including an annual Formula One race, WWE shows, the world’s richest horse race, as well some of the biggest heavyweight boxing bouts in recent memory. The country’s sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, also financed the purchase of the Premier League’s Newcastle United and a partnership with the PGA Tour. The kingdom has also spent extraordinary figures to lure top footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema to its domestic league.
By luring some of the world’s top athletes and sports leagues, Saudi Arabia was announcing itself as an global hub for sports, entertainment, and tourism. It is a soft power strategy that helps present the kingdom as a reformed nation and appealing destination for individuals and businesses alike. Seducing Messi to play in the Saudi Pro League would have marked the crown jewel of the kingdom’s sports drive.
Some may have thought Messi’s choice of the US over Saudi Arabia was a tacit criticism of Saudi Arabia’s repressive and regressive policies towards women, free-speech advocates and the LGBTQ community (although others would argue that Florida isn’t exactly leading the world in those areas either). But while Messi ultimately snubbed Riyadh’s offer, it was for personal – his family reportedly love Miami’s beach life – rather than ethical reasons. He continues to maintain a formal partnership with the kingdom through his role as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia.
Messi’s commercial deal with Saudi’s Tourism Authority is worth approximately $25m over three years, a huge amount but we should remember that he does not need the money. His obligations include tourism campaigns (Messi didn’t realize Saudi Arabia was so green!), social media posts (Messi and his family sit awkwardly under a tree!), charity appearances, and all-expenses-paid vacations, the most recent of which took place in May (Messi pets a horse!).
Given that Messi is one of the most popular athletes on the planet, his continued willingness to promote Saudi Arabia is a significant boon for the kingdom. And the fact that he remains under contract with the oil-rich country while playing on US soil only serves to draw more attention to the Saudi state.
While Saudi Arabia would have enjoyed the bragging rights of having the best footballer in the world playing in their domestic league, Messi’s growing popularity in the US could be beneficial to the kingdom as it continues to expand its soft power and rebrand itself as an attractive destination for tourists.
The Gulf state has successfully lobbied its interests in the United States for years, enlisting the services of consulting firms and public relations agencies to push its foreign policy, tourism, and sports agendas. The kingdom even launched a subsidiary of its sovereign wealth fund in New York as it continues to expand its investments in the country. Even so, Messi’s publicity is worth its weight in gold.
As fans and admirers from across the world tune in to witness Messi’s magic on the field, they will eventually be exposed to an advert for Saudi Arabia. Whenever Messi visits the kingdom or promotes Saudi interests in social media, his posts will reach an even wider audience that will include his newfound fans at Inter Miami and across the United States. Many may even be introduced to Saudi tourism for the first time through his content.
In short, Messi has effectively expanded Saudi Arabia’s promotional reach into the US.
The deal also contains one concerning condition: Messi cannot say anything that could “tarnish” the kingdom. And there’s a lot he could say. Saudi Arabia has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record. The kingdom has come under scrutiny for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as its suppression of freedom of expression, with authorities cracking down on dissent, imprisoning activists and intellectuals advocating for reforms. Last year, the kingdom executed 81 people, including 41 people from the Shia community, in a single day – the country’s largest mass execution in decades. There are also significant concerns about the country’s treatment of migrant workers and gay people, and the condition of women under the male guardianship system.
Given Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights records, it comes as no surprise that the kingdom continues to invest in sports to, among other things, launder its reputation. Messi, arguably the world’s greatest footballer, is among the kingdom’s best-compensated pitchmen – and now he gets to pitch to an entirely new audience.
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