Before 2023, the majority of soccer fans probably had not heard of the Saudi Pro League (RSL). In fact, even the most avid fans would not have been able to predict the astronomical growth that the RSL has experienced this year. It started, like a lot of events in modern football, with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fresh off a less-than-stellar season at Manchester United, Ronaldo announced a shock transfer to Al Nassr Football Club in an agreement that reportedly saw him taking in over $1 million a week. A long-time pioneer in his sport, Ronaldo’s decision to trade in the English Premier League for the Saudi Pro League broke everyone’s expectations for the January transfer window and put Al Nassr on the map. The club, whose Instagram account had around 860,000 followers prior to their new star signing, saw its following increase to 7.8 million in a week. As of Sept. 29, the account boasts around 19.8 million followers on Instagram, bypassing heavyweight clubs like AC Milan and Atlético de Madrid.
The footballer, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, was the first of many star signings completed by Saudi teams this year. Shortly after, Al-Ittihad snapped up 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and 2018 World Cup winner N’golo Kante. Al-Ahli finalized its agreement with Robert Firmino and Al Nassr bolstered its ranks with Sadio Mané. Most recently, Riyadh-based club Al Hilal signed Brazilian star forward Neymar, offering him an eye-watering $348 million contract.
It is not unusual for star players to exit the “Big Five'' European Leagues – the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and La Liga – during the final years of their careers. Former England captain David Beckham completed a move to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, Barcelona legend Xavi joined the Qatari League in 2015 and most recently, Lionel Messi left Paris Saint-Germain for Inter Miami. It is somewhat rare for players to retire in the league they played in at their “prime”; these days, it seems almost natural for a player to play their final two or three years of competitive football in a less competitive league. So why is it a shock that all these high-profile players are leaving European competitions for the RLS?
The reason is that, before 2023, these famous footballers were not moving to Saudi Arabia. In fact, it can be argued that the Saudi League’s last “big-name” signing was over two decades ago when Al-Ittihad signed 1994 World Cup star Bebeto.
In less than a year, a relatively unknown league has surged in popularity, spending almost $1 billion in signings and attracting millions of social media fans who wish to follow their favorite players’ careers. This initiative came after the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, announced it became the majority shareholder of the four most prominent clubs in the RSL: Al Nassr, Al-Ahli, Al-Ittihad and Al Hilal. This investment, as well as the announced merger deal between the Saudi-owned LIV golf tour and the PGA golf tour, characterized the beginning of a major expansion in Saudi Arabian sports, dubbed the “Summer of Saudi” by ESPN commentator Gabriele Marcotti.
Some sources have suggested that this project is an appeal to the younger generations; over half of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 30 and 80% of the population enjoys soccer. The government has also claimed that its spending has been driven by an ambition to develop young Saudi talent.
However, accusations of “sportswashing” have been made against the government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. Human rights groups have claimed that this billionaire spending project in sports is simply a publicity campaign to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in the international community, which took a nosedive after the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By focusing attention on sports tournaments and achievements, MBS and his advisors may be able to dilute the country’s reputation of repression and human rights violations, bolstering tourism and foreign direct investment.
Whatever the intentions, the RLS will continue to court prominent soccer players and, if the number is right, succeed in signing them.