CR7 in Al Nassr: Just More Sportswashing?

255

Cristiano Ronaldo completed a landmark deal with Saudi Arabian club, Al- Nassr, which can be considered an epoch-making moment for Middle Eastern football. Al-Nassr welcomed one of the biggest stars of European football, posting a picture on social media of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner holding up the team’s jersey, hailing the move as “history in the making.”

Ronaldo’s contract with the club has been estimated to be worth more than 200 million euros, making him the highest-paid player in football history. While the signing is a remarkable boost for football to the Middle East, it will also add fuel to the debate regarding Saudi Arabia’s “sportswashing” to uplift the country’s image globally.

Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund already owns Newcastle United and the country is expecting to bid to host the 2030 World Cup. Apart from this, the KSA’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, pioneered a greater social and political reform, aiming in 2030 to diversify the country’s economy and reduce the dependency on oil like its adjacent Gulf states Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Against such a backdrop, Ronaldo joining the Saudi club will not only have profound implications in terms of casting more international audiences for the domestic league, but also can attain success in the changing diplomatic posture of the KSA.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced significant social and economic reforms to bring Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century. Ronaldo helps with that, even if he is nearing the end of his playing career at 37. Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan includes sports, notably football, the most popular form of entertainment. It promotes sports as part of the creation of a contemporary entertainment sector in a nation where none existed before the crown prince’s emergence in 2015, and it adds to a public health program that emphasizes exercise and sports.

CR7 (as he is known by many fans) also contributes to Salman’s aim to supplant smaller Gulf governments, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as the centre for everything in the Gulf, whether it’s sports or the regional headquarters of major multinationals and enterprises.

To achieve his goal, Salman needs to project Saudi Arabia as a nation with a national rather than a religious identity. Boosted by Ronaldo’s stardom, football is a perfect tool to accomplish that. Ronaldo’s move could be an initial step in a bolder effort to position Saudi Arabia at the core of Middle Eastern sports. Ronaldo will provide legitimacy to Saudi Arabian football like few others can. Additionally, he will cast media attention, global interest, and a higher TRP of their league on a scale that few others can with his overwhelming popularity.

Despite all the criticism Qatar received regarding its human rights record, it was successful in promoting the country on a global scale. Saudi Arabia, in effect, follows in their footsteps. Ronaldo will play an ambassadorial role in the country’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup. In addition to Ronaldo, Lionel Messi has also been signed on as a tourism ambassador for the country, who will likely help in their bid.

The global pandemic and the Ukraine war have shifted the paradigm of energy politics. With the sanctions on Russia, the Middle East has emerged as an alternative energy source for Europe. Besides, there is a growing closeness between China and the KSA and Russia and KSA which casts a dark cloud on its relationship with the West.

Thus, Saudi Arabia is trying to be more integrated globally and explore the available options apart from the West in terms of an energy alliance. Sports diplomacy can be a plausible option that can not only bring Saudi Arabia a softer image but also supports it to attain more legitimacy in the global domain.

A new image

Ronaldo’s move will cast away attention from Saudi’s abominable human rights record, especially when the United Nations has long urged the country to improve its human rights record.

Signing Ronaldo for Al-Nassr will facilitate the KSA’s global presence exclusively to the young generations. As a result, the KSA strives to change the image of its monarchy that has used its oil-rich resources to promote an ultra-conservative, parochial, and intolerant view of religion that has been entrenched over seven decades.

For KSA, they coveted a player that could showcase them to the football world. Cristiano Ronaldo can fulfill their greatest ambition in sports diplomacy; he is the most followed human being on social media.

Previously, Saudi Arabia was known for its oil, human rights violation records, conservative image, and a close ally of the US. Now, it longs to create a new image of a Gulf country to the world, one which pioneered a new car, is globally integrated into the sports and entertainment industry, and has invested $ 2.1 billion in space programs.

Signing CR7 to Al-Nassr is just another giant step toward their greater plan of changing their diplomatic posture in today’s world.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). Previously, she worked as an Intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh.

Published in Dhaka Tribune [Link]