VIDEO THUMBNAIL saudi soccer 1
Why is Saudi Arabia signing so many soccer players?
03:20 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

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When Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal reportedly planned a $1.1 billion bid to sign French soccer superstar Kylian Mbappé – including $332 million to his club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), and an eye-watering $775 million salary packet to the World Cup winner for just one year – it was slammed by critics as sportswashing.

Mbappé might have said no to the offer in July, but a month later, Neymar Jr. said yes to Al-Hilal, as the Brazil star moved from PSG for a transfer fee of around $98.5 million (€90 million) plus add-ons, according to multiple reports.

In a record-breaking transfer window, Saudi Pro League (SPL) clubs spent close to $1 billion, acquiring 94 overseas players from Europe’s major leagues – France’s Ligue 1, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League – according to Deloitte.

Despite the Arab nation’s poor human rights record, Saudi Arabia’s spending spree to turn its domestic soccer league into a star-studded, bona fide competition shows the seriousness of its ambition.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he doesn’t “care” about the country’s investment in sport being described as sportswashing.

“Well if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing,” MBS said in an interview with Fox News which aired Wednesday.

Pressed on if he was bothered by the use of the term, MBS continued: “I don’t care. I have one percent GDP growth from sport, and I am aiming for another one and a half percent. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that one and a half percent.”

Saudi clubs, several of which have been taken over by the nation’s sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF), have already attracted some of the biggest names in the sport.

Al Nassr's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during the Algarve Cup football match between Al Nassr and SL Benfica at Algarve stadium in Loule on July 20, 2023. (Photo by Patricia DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP) (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

By attracting some of the world’s biggest stars to the Gulf states, the SPL wants “to drive competitiveness on and off the pitch,” though it’s keen to emphasize that these overseas players will help develop “young Saudi talent.”

During this summer transfer window, the government-controlled PIF increased the cumulative value of these four clubs nearly five times, making them the most valuable in the country, according to estimates by the sports website Transfermarkt.