In January 2019, the King Abdullah Sports
City Stadium in Jeddah, the bustling, multi-ethnic port city on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast,
will host an historic match. Juventus and AC Milan will play each other, not in some
glorified pre-season friendly but in he Italian Supercoppa. With all the controversy about the Premier
League’s 39th game and La Liga’s recent failed attempt to play a league match in the US,
the Italian Supercoppa is something of a trailblazer in this area, having already been played four
times in China, twice in the US, twice in Doha and, most unusually, in Tripoli, the
capital of Libya. The move was announced by the Saudi General
Sports Authority on Twitter, with a picture of Marco Brunelli, the of head of the Italian
league, posing with the GSA chief Turki al Sheikh, smiling from ear to ear wearing oversized
sunglasses. More on him later. But January’s final could prove to be even
more controversial than the deal struck with Colo nel Muammar Gaddafi for the 2002 edition.
Saudi Arabia is a the midst of a cultural revolution that could have profound implications
for the future of the global game. Under the auspices of the country’s young crown prince
Mohammed bin Salman, the conservative Islamic kingdom appears to be opening itself up to
the outside world. The well publicised and much criticised ban on women driving was lifted.
Cinemas were reopened. Saudi’s feared religious police, who would arrest and pursue women
who they viewed as dressing immodestly, were stripped of many of their powers. But one of the biggest changes of all came
in sport. A ban on women attending matches was lifted but this was but the tip of the
iceberg. Saudi Arabia has been investing billions of pounds in sport and especially football,
seeing it as a may to both soften its image and – with one eye on the successes of its
neighbours Qatar and the UAE – to increase its own soft power and influence. The kingdom
is thought to be the driving force behind a massive proposed $25 billion deal with FIFA
that would completely revolutionise the game and challenge the Champions League for global
supremacy. The kingdom has moved to privatise the clubs that make up its hugely popular
local football league and a multimillion dollar deal was struck with La Liga that saw Saudi’s
top stars move to a handful of clubs in Spain in the hope of getting top level experience
in the run up to the 2018 World Cup (even if the five players that did go barely played
and instead got hammered by Russia in the opening game 5-0, as Russian president Vladimir
Putin, Mohamed bin Salman and FIFA president Gianni Infantino bantered with each other
in the stands). There could even be a Saudi backed purchase of Manchester United on the
cards. But there is a problem. Saudi Arabia is and
remains one of the world’s most uncompromising abusers of human rights despite its attempt
at sportswashing. There is zero democracy. According to the Cornell Law School’s Death
Penalty Database, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 1065 people over the past decade.
There is, effectively, a gender apartheid in the country even after taking into account
the lifting of the ban on women attending games and the ban on driving. Still, in November
both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International revealed they had collected testimonies from
leading women’s rights activists who had recently been arrested in the kingdom and, it is alleged,
tortured. The liberal blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000
lashes for his outspoken online activism. He remains in prison, reportedly in poor health
after receiving his first 50 lashes, along with hundreds of other political prisoners.
But he escaped lightly compared to Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi Washington Post journalist
and critic of Mohammed bin Salman who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul,
murdered, dismembered and disposed of by a squad of security personal with links to Mohamed
bin Salman. He quickly acquired the nickname Mohamed Bone Saw and became something of an
international pariah. But there was a time when things were very different.
In 2017 Mohamed bin Salman, the Saudi king’s favourite son, was elevated to the position
of crown prince. He had a new strategy: Vision 2030, a plan to diversify the country from
dependence on its vast oil wealth garnered from the world’s largest oil reserves. The
plan to economically and culturally diversify the country was necessary given that, by one
count, 60 per cent of the population was under 30. And part of this strategy was also about
presenting a new face of Saudi Arabia to the world by previously controversial cultural
issues that were high visible but also easily solved. Sport amongst them. With the strong
support of Donald Trump’s administration in the US as well as Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown
prince of the United Arab Emirates who groomed MBS, Mohamed Bin Salman was feted in the west
as a reformer. Although this didn’t last too long, especially after 200 Saudi elite figures
and businessmen were effectively held in the gilded prison of the Ritz-Carlton hotel on
Riyadh on accusations of corruption and only released, allegedly, after paying billions
of dollars back to the state. Sport, however, can show the world a different
face. In 2017 Infantino travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi Arabia’s king, as
well as MBS and the GSA head Turki al Sheikh, a key ally of MBS who has spearheaded many
of the reforms within football. In fact Infantino travelled there three times in a year, and
famously sat next to MBS at the opening of the 2018 World Cup. Just before the finals began, Infantino made
a shock proposal to FIFA: a revamped Club World Cup, expanded to include the biggest
European clubs and a direct challenger to UEFA’s Champions League. There was also a
proposal for a global version of UEFA’s Nations League, but the deal, it later emerged, also
included rights to future World Cups and its vast and highly lucrative archive of intellectual
property: videos, photos, computer games, the works. The figure was huge. $25 billion
was far more than FIFA could have hoped to ask for. The current Club World Cup, according
to the New York Times, is worth $100 million at best. The problem was, Infantino would
not disclose to FIFA who was behind the deal due to a non disclosure agreement. But he
still wanted to push through agreement at the FIFA Council, or the deal would be withdrawn.
In the end, the Council said they needed more time, but the deal is still there. It later
emerged that it was being financed by SoftBank, a huge Japanese conglomerate which has strong
ties to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The three have combined to create the world’s
largest tech investment fund. But the full details of the deal remain opaque.
Ever since that knock back Infantino has been trying to allay FIFA’s fears about the deal
whilst giving little away about who was behind it. But then came the killing Khashoggi, which
had an immediate effect. A huge investment conference, dubbed Davos in the Desert, was
due to take place not long afterward the murder. But it was now kryptonite to those with ambitions
of doing business in the Kingdom. One of the figures planing to attend was Avram Glazer,
co-chairman of Manchester United. It was alleged that the visit was a chance to sound out the
possibility of a £4 billion sale of the club to none other than Mohammed bin Salman. But
after the Khashoggi killing, which MBS was heavily implicated in giving the go ahead
for but for which he has strongly denied any involvement with, Glazer pulled out. The killing
also put the brakes on the $25 billion FIFA deal which had been heavily backed by Infantino
but strongly opposed by UEFA’s president Aleksander Čeferin. Infantino was forced to stress that
direct state funds would not be used to pay for the deal but few more details were given. But that isn’t the end of Saudi Arabia’s interest
in the game. The next months will see whether one strategy will come to fruition, namely
the expansion of the Qatar 2022 World Cup to 48 teams. Saudi Arabia and the UAE has
lead a boycott of Qatar on the tenuous grounds that it supports terrorism. The blockade,
as it is known in Qatar, has largely failed but Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made taking
the World Cup away from Qatar a key foreign policy goal. And if they can’t get that, then
to a least force Qatar to share it with them. Such an expansion to 48 teams, at this late
stage, would be almost impossible for Qatar to accommodate, meaning that it would, indeed,
have to shared with other countries. And the most enthusiastic backer of the expansion?
Gianni Infantino himself. In November he addressed the leaders of the G20, the 20 largest economies
in the world, in Argentina. Mohamed bin Salman amongst them. After saying for years that
sports and politics should be separate, Infantino gave a speech that claimed football could
in fact be used to heal social and political divisions. One example? The rift between the
Gulf states. “Maybe, if football makes dreams come true, in 2022 we could also experience
a World Cup in Qatar as well as, why not, some games in other countries of the Arabian
Gulf. But this is another story, hopefully with a happy end. Inshallah!” he said. Later he told The Guardian that expanding
and sharing the World Cup could help bring peace in the Gulf. When asked about Saudi
Arabia hosting matches he said: “if any discussion around the World Cup can help in
any way whatsoever to make the situation evolve in that region, with regard to Saudi Arabia,
it’s a nice impact maybe.” But the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi looms large
with every Saudi investment now, whether it is Manchester United’s strategic partnership
with the GSA signed in 2017 with Turki al Sheikh holding up a Manchester United shirt
with his name on the back, or their alleged proposed takeover
of the club. Manchester City has been strongly criticised
for the role it plays in sportswashing the human rights abuses of the United Arab Emirates.
When the Italian Supercoppa kicks off in Jeddah, it might also be time for football to have
the same conversation about Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia: The Secret Power in World Football?
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