Saudi Pursuit of Soft Power Through Soccer: Saudi Arabia aims to match what UAE and Qatar have achieved

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman attends the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Photo Credit: TASS via Getty Images

The January announcement of Saudi normalization of relations with Qatar will likely help Saudi Arabia’s efforts to acquire an elite soccer team, which would allow Riyadh to enhance its tarnished global image.[i] Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, the UAE and Qatar, have invested billions of dollars into such teams, using them as a form of soft power to enhance their image to strengthen strategic and economic ties. Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to join them, but Qatari opposition related to the Gulf rift scuttled these efforts; with thawing relations between Riyadh and Doha, Saudi Arabia’s effort to acquire a soccer team is likely back on track.

Soft Power and the Acquisition of Soccer Teams

To understand why Saudi Arabia has attempted to purchase a prominent, Western soccer team, one must look to the success of the UAE and Qatar, which are using some of the world’s most recognizable soccer clubs to elevate their image. Abu Dhabi purchased Premier League club Manchester City in 2008 for $360m[ii] and four years later Doha purchased French Ligue 1 club Paris St. Germain (PSG) for $170m.[iii] Since then, the UAE and Qatar have invested a combined $2.5bn to improve their teams,[iv] which has transformed them from middle-tier clubs into the best in their respective countries,[v] winning a combined 12 league titles in the last decade.[vi]

The Gulf states turned these star-studded teams into advertisements for their countries and their largest firms. Manchester City’s jerseys are adorned by Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi’s flag carrier)[vii] and play in Etihad Stadium.[viii] PSG players have the logo of Qatar National Bank on their sleeve and are sponsored by Qatar Tourism Authority and Qatar Airways.[ix] The team’s owners—senior officials in their respective kingdoms—make frequent media appearances, promoting both the clubs and their countries.[x]

Owning a world-class soccer team is one way to influence public opinion of a state.[xi] This “soft power” can yield political and economic benefits. From a political perspective, it can improve the state’s international stature by deflecting attention away from controversial issues, a phenomenon known as “sportswashing” or “reputation laundering.”[xii] This is particularly important for the Gulf states, which rely on close strategic ties with the United States and western Europe. From an economic perspective, an improved brand can expand international business and tourism. This is important for small Gulf states that rely heavily on international trade, travel, and tourism,[xiii] but also a potent tool for larger states: Russia’s GAZPROM used sponsorships of German soccer teams to advance Nord Stream II[xiv] and China’s Huawei sponsored a Premier League team to advance market access.[xv]

Purchasing soccer clubs fits into a broader soft power strategy, alongside other tools like state media, effort to influence think tanks, and hosting global competitions (Qatar is also hosting the 2022 World Cup).[xvi] The owner of Manchester City, UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour,[xvii] for example, also oversees the UAE’s Soft Power Strategy, which aims to “build a strong reputation for the [UAE]” to advance “developmental, economic and cultural goals and ambitions.”[xviii] Marketing firms rate the UAE as having the best “brand” in the Middle East, with Qatar not far behind.[xix]

Saudi Efforts to Own a Soccer Team

From 2018 to 2020,[xx] Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) — a $400B sovereign wealth fund overseen by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)[xxi] — has been attempting to purchase Newcastle United, a prominent but struggling English Premier League team, for $445 million.[xxii]  This acquisition would have supported MBS’ Vision 2030, his ambitious effort to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy, of which a key element is improving Saudi Arabia’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment (FDI).[xxiii] Thus far, Vision 2030 has fallen short on meeting its objectives, with FDI barely one-quarter of the goal set in 2016.[xxiv] For Saudi Arabia, sports play an important role in this: since Vision 2030 was announced in 2016, Saudi Arabia has spent $1 billion on hosting or sponsoring sports competitions, including chess, soccer, motorsports, and golf, and boxing.[xxv]

Saudi Arabia’s effort was stymied primarily due to opposition from Qatar, a spillover of Saudi-Qatar tensions resulting from the Gulf Rift (2017-2021). Throughout the rift, all parties became enmeshed in international legal disputes and sought to denigrate their rivals through different means.[xxvi] To undermine the Saudi effort, Qatar accused Saudi Arabia of enabling the illegal broadcasting of Premier League games by pirating the content of Qatar’s beIN, a Qatari sports media company.[xxvii] The Chairman of beIN—who is also the Chairman of PSG[xxviii]— sent a letter to the owner of each Premier League club accusing Saudi Arabia of “causing huge damage” to the League, a sentiment extensively echoed in Qatari state media.[xxix] In June, Qatar won a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization, which found that Saudi Arabia enabled the piracy of beIN’s content.[xxx] In July, Saudi Arabia withdrew its bid for purchasing the team.[xxxi] Qatar’s soft power in sports and media had successfully foiled the soft power pursuits of it’s wealthier rival.


On January 5, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Arab states agreed to restore diplomatic relations, easing the Gulf rift.[xxxii] As part of the reconciliation, Qatar agreed to drop several international lawsuits,[xxxiii] one of which is the beIN lawsuit against Saudi Arabia[xxxiv]. The lawsuit has not yet been lifted, but numerous reports indicate this will happen as soon as Saudi Arabia lifts the ban on beIN.[xxxv]

The end of Qatar’s opposition does not guarantee Saudi success in the acquisition. Saudi Arabia will still encounter challenges to acquiring a soccer team, such as firm opposition from human rights activists.[xxxvi] But normalization with Qatar puts Riyadh one step closer in that direction. With Vision 2030 failing to meet internal benchmarks for success and ties with western powers increasingly strained, this is more than just an issue of soccer: the Kingdom’s long-term success may well rest on its ability to change its global public image.[xxxvii]


[i] Aya Batrawy and Amr Nabil, “Gulf Arab leaders sign declaration to ease rift with Qatar,” Associated Press, 5 Jan 2021,

[ii] Simeon Kerr and Philip Stafford, “Abu Dhabi investors buy Manchester City,” Financial Times, 1 Sep 2008,

[iii] Tim Lister, “The Qatar connection to soccer’s record Neymar transfer,” CNN, 4 Aug 2017,

[iv] “2018-2019 Annual Report and Financial Statements,” Manchester City Football Club Limited, 2019.; Adam Reed, “Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners have spent $1.17 billion on players, but the Champions League is still out of reach,” CNBC, 18 Sep 2018,

[v] “Global Club Soccer Rankings,” 538, 23 Apr 2021,

[vi] “Premier League: Champions,”, 2020,; “Ligue 1 fixtures & results,” Eurosport, 2020,


[viii] “Visiting the Etihad Stadium,” Manchester City,

[ix] “Paris St. Germain Jerseys, “Fanatics,

[x] Nick Bidwell, “People of the Year: Nasser Al Khelaifi,” World Soccer, 26 Dec 2020,; Sheikh Mansour, “’We’re not there yet but we have come a long way’: Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour on why his team can be the best in the world,” Daily Mail, 31 Aug 2018,

[xi] Oscar Rickett, “Manchester City, Abu Dhabi and the rise of English football’s new order,” Middle East Eye, 17 May 2019,

[xii] Jack Watson, “Amnesty International accuses Manchester City owners of ‘sportswashing’ their country’s image,” The Independent, 10 Nov 2018,

[xiii] “Exports of goods and services (% of GDP),” The World Bank,

[xiv] Simon Chadwick, “Sports sponsorship fuelling Gazprom’s soft power: how the Russian energy supplier uses football to reach out to decision-makers,” South China Morning Post, 5 Mar 2019,

[xv] Laura O’Reilly, “Huawei looks to Arsenal sponsorship to double awareness of brand in the UK,” Marketing Week, 23 May 2014,

[xvi] Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore, “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks,” New York Times, 6 Sep 2014,

[xvii] “Our Story,” City Football Group,

[xviii] Staff Report, “UAE’s Soft Power Strategy discussed,” Gulf New, 26 Sep 2017

[xix] “2019 Brand Index,” Future Brand, 2019,

[xx] Jim Robertson, “Saudi investment group preparing huge bid for Newcastle United and Mike Ashley interested – Vavel,” The Mag, 2018,

[xxi] “Top 95 Largest Sovereign Wealth Fund Rankings by Total Assets,” Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute,; “Board Members,” Public Investment Fund,

[xxii] “Club Soccer Predictions – Premier League,” 538, 24 Apr 2021,; Bradley Hope, Rory Jones and Joshua Robinson, “Saudi Sovereign-Wealth Fund in Talks to Buy U.K. Soccer Team Newcastle United,” Wall Street Journal, 25 Jan 2020

[xxiii] “Message from HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud,” Vision 2030,

[xxiv] Ziad Daoud, “Saudi insight: Vision 2030 mirage looms over Davos in the desert,” Bloomberg, 08 Feb 2021

[xxv] “Saudi Arabia’s Sportswashing Programme,” Grant Liberty, 2021,

[xxvi] Omar H. Rahman, Noha Aboueldahab, Zach Vertin, Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Nader Kabbani, Ranj Alaaldin, Galip Dalay, Adel Abdel Ghafar, and Yasmina Abouzzohour, “What Brookings experts are saying about the two-year anniversary of the Gulf crisis,” Brookings Institution, 3 Jun 2019,; “World Court hands Qatar legal win in air blockade row with Gulf states,” Reuters, 14 Jun 2020,

[xxvii]  Gabriele Marcotti, “Newcastle United sale to Saudi Arabia-led consortium: Why the stakes are so high,” ESPN, 1 Jul 2020,; Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop, “WTO says Saudi broke global rules in Qatar broadcast dispute,” Reuters, 16 Jun 2020,

[xxviii] “Nasser Al-Khelaifi,” beIN Media Group,

[xxix]; “Could Saudi Arabia’s mass scale IP theft sink Newcastle bid?” Al Jazeera,  16 Jun 2020,; James Brownsell, “How Saudi piracy station beoutQ could sink Newcastle takeover bid,” Al Jazeera, 1 Jun 2020,

[xxx] Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop, “WTO says Saudi broke global rules in Qatar broadcast dispute,” Reuters, 16 Jun 2020,

[xxxi] Gabriele Marcotti, “Newcastle United sale to Saudi Arabia-led consortium: Why the stakes are so high,” ESPN, 1 Jul 2020,

[xxxii] Aya Batrawy and Amr Nabil, “Gulf Arab leaders sign declaration to ease rift with Qatar,” Associated Press, 5 Jan 2021,

[xxxiii] Vivian Yee and Michael Crowley, “Saudi Arabia Will Reopen Borders With Qatar, Easing a Regional Rift,” New York Times, 4 Jan 2021,

[xxxiv] Kevin McCullah, “End of Saudi-Qatar Dispute Raises Hoes for beIN Rapprochement,” Sports Business, Jan 2021,

[xxxv]; “BeIN Hopeful Over Saudi Return After End to Blockade,” Sports Business, Jan 2021

[xxxvi] “Khashoggi fiancee urges Newcastle fans to shun Saudi takeover,” Al Jazeera, 13 May 2020; “English Premier League: Adopt Human Rights Policy,” Human Rights Watch, 21 Jul 2020;

[xxxvii] Kirsten Fontenrose, “After the Khashoggi report: How the US can respond and avoid blowback,” The Atlantic Council, 26 Feb 2021,

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