As the morality, or lack thereof, of the increasingly long list of footballers who have gone to Saudi Arabia in exchange for huge contracts, the dictatorial regime increases its penetration in traditional football, that of the big leagues. He does it with thunderous bursts, like the purchase of Newcastle (which they have already managed to take to the Champions League), but also with others with less apparent impact, such as the last two that he has executed in Spain.
In just one week, the Asian country has signed two important sponsorship agreements. First it was Atlético de Madrid who announced that from now on, and until 2027, they will wear the logo of Riyadh Air, the Saudi state-owned airline that isn’t even operating flights yet. This Thursday, it was LaLiga the one that announced a “collaboration agreement” with the Visit Saudi branddesigned to enhance the image of the country as a tourist destination.
60 million euros per year
Saudi Arabia’s annual commitment to both institutions amounts to 60 million annually (40 for Atlético and 20 for LaLiga), according to data published by the portal ‘2Playbook’, specialized in the sports industry. A powerful investment that confirms the determined Saudi commitment to football as a whole, not only to promote its own championship with stars like Christian, Benzema, neymar or firmino.
The presence of Saudi money in Spanish football is not new, but these two operations confirm its boom. Well known is the agreement with the Royal Spanish Football Federation so that the Spanish Super Cup is played in a ‘final four’ format on Arab soil. A contract that reports every year 40 million euros to the federal entity and that it has extended until at least 2029.
At club level, Almería is owned by Turki Al Sheik, who paid about 20 million euros for the Andalusian entity. The nuance here is that, unlike most investments, it is not the Saudi sovereign fund that executes it, but an individual who, yes, is direct adviser and former minister of the government of the country. It is not owned directly by Saudi Arabia, anyway, but as if it were.
The fifth sponsor of LaLiga
However, the love-hate relationship that LaLiga and Saudi Arabia have culminated in recent times is peculiar and that now, after this sponsorship (which the institution places in fifth order on its own website, after EA Sports, Puma, Microsoft and Mahou), is in its best historical moment.
In January 2018, LaLiga announced an agreement for nine Saudi footballers will play on loan in three First Division teams (Villarreal, Leganés and Levante) and four Second Division teams (Numancia, Rayo, Sporting and Valladolid), at no cost to them and as a marketing tool for these clubs and the competition as a whole to expand their brand in the region. Only two of them got to play for a minute.
It was a project led by Al Sheik, the now owner of Almería and who was then the country’s Minister of Sports, for which LaLiga, according to information published at the time, pocketed €28 million.
The Saudi-Qatar conflict
The relationship, however, soured as a result of the television war that Saudi Arabia had with Qatar and that affected the main world championships in a collateral way. BeIn Sports, a Qatari company, is the winner of the TV rights for the major soccer competitions throughout the region, so the Saudi regime had to reach agreements with BeIn to be able to broadcast soccer in the country.
However, due to the break of diplomatic relations with Qatarwhat Saudi Arabia was doing was hacking the signal through a channel called BeOutQ (which comes to mean “get out of here, Qatar”), which led to the joint complaint by FIFA, UEFA, AFC (the Asian confederation), LaLiga, Premier League and Bundesliga in January 2019.
An argument that Javier Tebas himself used at the time to criticize the agreement of his archenemy Luis Rubiales to bring the Super Cup to Saudi soil. “It is a country that makes us lose 55 million euros with state piracy”censored in 2019 the president of LaLiga, who also made reference to the “human rights issue”.
The diplomatic peace between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Saudi kingdom’s willingness to buy Newcastle (something that the Premier League did not allow due to the existence of BeOutQ) caused these piracy practices to cease, something it did in November 2021. Definitively. Since then, already within the television legality (not the one related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)the Saudi kingdom has undertaken investment practices that are now reaching Spain.
Nothing that Qatar did not do at the time with FC Barcelona or until today the United Arab Emirates with Real Madrid, in whose shirt is still worn by the Emirates airline. They are more examples that like all football, and in this case Spanish, they continue to fill their pockets with their noses covered. Such are these times.