Saudi Arabia privatises football clubs, eyes big-name signings

Saudi Arabia aims to increase the revenue of its football league and bring it up to ‘top 10 in the world’.

Soccer Football - Saudi Pro League - Al Nassr v Al Ettifaq - Mrsool Park, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - January 22, 2023 An Al Nassr fan holds a Portugal shirt with Cristiano Ronaldo's name printed on the back during the match
A fan of Saudi football club Al Nassr holds a Portugal shirt with Cristiano Ronaldo's name printed on the back [Ahmed Yosri/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund will take control of four of the kingdom’s top football clubs including Al Nassr, which Cristiano Ronaldo plays for, as the government revives a plan to privatise several state-owned sports clubs.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) will own 75 percent of Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, Al Nassr, and Al Hilal, the sports ministry said on Twitter on Monday, following a report by state news agency SPA that Saudi Arabia will privatise several sports clubs from the fourth quarter.

All are in the top-flight Saudi Professional League, except Al Ahli which is in the second-tier Saudi First Division. PIF has previously taken over several companies before privatising them, though often partially.

Unlike the Premier League and other European teams, Saudi clubs are not bound by UEFA’s rules on spending, meaning there is no limit to the salaries the PIF can offer to lure top players to the Middle East.

Sports is one of the pillars of the government’s Vision 2030 economic diversification plan that seeks to build new industries and create jobs – and PIF is at the centre of that scheme.

The privatisation plan, mainly focused on football clubs and launched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, allows companies and development agencies to invest in and take over clubs, SPA reported.

Higher revenue, bigger names

The kingdom aims for the revenue of the Saudi Professional League to increase to 1.8 billion riyals ($480 million) annually by 2030 from 450 million riyals ($120 million). It expects its market value to rise to more than 8 billion riyals ($2.1 billion) over the same period, SPA added.

The sports ministry said Second Division football club Al-Suqoor will be turned into a company and owned by NEOM, which is behind the kingdom’s project to build a futuristic city in the desert.

Saudi oil giant Aramco will own Saudi First Division club Al-Qadsiah, Third Division side Alula FC will be owned by the Royal Commission for Al-Ula and First Division club Al-Diraiyah FC will be controlled by Diriyah Gate Development Authority.

Meanwhile, the kingdom has poured money into raising its football standing. PIF led a consortium to buy Premier League side Newcastle United in October 2021.

The league has also attracted some of the sport’s most decorated players, notably Portuguese great Ronaldo, who joined Al Nassr at the end of last year.

Last month, a source close to Argentina captain Lionel Messi – Ronaldo’s rival for the title of best player of his generation – told Reuters that he had received a formal offer to join Al Hilal next season.

Monday’s initiatives made it clear that a growing list of top players could soon get lucrative offers to join Ronaldo in the Middle East.

“The Saudi Pro League … will be supported in its ambition to be amongst the top 10 leagues in the world,” SPA said.

French striker Karim Benzema is reportedly slated to join his former longtime Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo in the Saudi league. The move is expected to be confirmed this week after he played an emotional farewell game Sunday after 14 years with the 14-time European champion.

Messi played his last game for Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday and is weighing offers from Saudi Arabia and Inter Miami in Major League Soccer.

However, reports in Spanish media say he favours a potential return to Barcelona, where he spent 16 years before reluctantly leaving the financially troubled club for PSG in 2021.

Source: News Agencies