Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5bn on ‘sportswashing’, report reveals

Report outlines the scale of spending and broad range of sports involved

Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5 billion (€1.27 billion) on high-profile international sporting events in a bid to bolster its reputation, a new report reveals.

The oil-rich nation has invested millions across the sporting world, the report by the human rights organisation Grant Liberty says, from chess championships to golf, tennis and $60 million (€50.85 million) alone on the Saudi Cup, the world’s richest horse-racing event with prize money of $20 million (€17 million).

The report, to be published this week, also details the Kingdom’s $650 million (€551 million) 10-year deal with Formula One, whose world championships will for the first time include a race in the port city of Jeddah.

Grant Liberty’s analysis outlines the momentous scale of Saudi Arabia’s investments in what they term “sportswashing”, the practice of investing or hosting sporting events in a bid to obscure the kingdom’s poor human rights record, and tout itself as a new leading global venue for tourism and events.


Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched the Kingdom’s “Vision2030” masterplan five years ago, a sweeping strategic plan intended to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic dependence on oil. But the plan, touted as a watershed that will transform the kingdom socially as well as economically, was followed by a broad crackdown on dissent, including the arrest of feminist activists and religious clerics.

The kingdom has also spearheaded an intervention in Yemen, part of a war that has killed over 100,000 people including at least 12,000 civilians. Observers estimate that at least two-thirds of these deaths were caused by Saudi Arabia’s aggressive campaign of airstrikes.

A recently declassified US intelligence report named MBS as ultimately responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The Guardian recently revealed that a senior Saudi official issued what was perceived as a death threat against United Nations investigator Agnes Callamard to her colleague in January last year, following her investigation of Khashoggi's murder.

Meanwhile, the kingdom has spent big to secure involvement in global sporting events, part of efforts to present Saudi Arabia as a newly business-friendly, forward-thinking nation.

This includes $145 million (€123 million) in a three-year deal with the Spanish Football Association, and $15 million (€12.7 million) in appearance fees for a single Saudi International men's golf tournament. It also includes $33 million (€28 million) to host the Saudi Arabian Masters snooker tournament in the kingdom, and $100 million (€85 million) for the boxing match known as "Clash on the Dunes" between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua in 2019.

Saudi Arabia also cut a $500 million (€423.5 million) 10-year deal with World Wrestling Entertainment in 2014, one where female performers were banned from appearing until two years ago.

"Saudi Arabia is trying to use the good reputation of the world's best loved sports stars to obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture and murder," said Grant Liberty's Lucy Rae, who accused Saudi Arabia of "committing human rights abuses on an industrial scale".

“The world’s leading sports stars might not have asked to be part of a cynical marketing plan to distract the world from the brutality – but that’s what is happening,” she added.

Grant Liberty compiled reported figures of deals between entities controlled by the Saudi state, such as the organisation Visit Saudi and NEOM, the body overseeing construction of a futuristic $500 billion (€423.5 billion) city in the desert, but not individual members of the Saudi royal family, meaning the $1.5 billion (€1.27 billion) figure is likely an underestimation of the true scale of the kingdom’s investments in sports.

Also included is analysis of deals that never came to fruition following an outcry, including a $6 million (€5.1 million) offer to footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to be the face of the Kingdom's tourism body Visit Saudi and a controversial $400 million (€339 million) takeover-bid for Newcastle United.

The kingdom has also entered pending bids for forthcoming events, including $200 million (€170 million) for the Tyson Fury vs Joshua boxing match set to take place later this year, and $180 million (€152.5 million) in sponsorship for Real Madrid through the Qiddiya project, a tourism and entertainment megaproject in Riyadh under the umbrella of "Vision 2030".

"Vision 2030 has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals. That will not only potentially provide employment for thousands of Saudis but it will also improve the quality of life for everyone living in the kingdom," said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, when asked about Grant Liberty's findings.

He added: “The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world.” – Guardian