View From The Middle East – The reasons behind the growth of the Saudi Pro League
July 6, 2023
In this week’s View From Middle East article Adam Paker, Partner at Portas Consulting, looks into the the profound changes in Saudi football beyond Ronaldo and Benzema.
The signings of such football stars as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema by the Saudi Pro League have made headlines worldwide. Yet the logic of such signings is not well-understood, and it is easy to dismiss as no more than a spending spree.
The reality is very different and speaks of profound, strategic, structural changes within Saudi football at all levels. These are much less about short-term attention-grabbing, and much more about building a plan for long-term, sustained success.
Saudi Arabia has placed an emphasis on the benefits of sport and physical activity since the launch of Vision 2030, its national strategy aimed at diversifying the economy away from a dependence on oil.
One of the cornerstones of Vision 2030, the Quality of Life Program, puts a strong accent on embedding sport and physical activity in Saudi daily life. This has led to significant investment in improving the sporting offering in Saudi Arabia across sports and at all levels from grassroots to elite.
Football, the most popular sport in the Kingdom in terms both of participation and following (the larger clubs have a significant fan base – Al-Ittihad, the reigning champions, averaged 41k in attendance last season) is a subject of particular focus and ambition. What are the building blocks of this strategy?
1.) A pathway for talent development
Saudi Arabia stunned audiences worldwide last year with their 2-1 victory over Argentina at the Qatar FIFA World Cup. Yet this was no overnight success; in fact, Saudi football has undergone a profound transformation in its approach to player development. In 2019, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation started work on a new strategy, “Our tactics for tomorrow”, which gave special importance to grassroots youth development. The following year saw the opening of the Mahd Academy, the national elite sport centre, with a mission to develop young athletes in football and other sports. Implementation followed, with youth leagues overhauled and national training centres under development across the country to support the development of local talent.
2.) Transforming the clubs
The ambition of the Saudi Pro League is to be a top 10 league worldwide over the next 5 to 7 years. Driven and overseen by the Ministry of Sport, the 100+ professional football clubs in Saudi Arabia across 4 tiers have benefited for several years from a significant process of transformation, investment, and modernisation. In June 2023 this was followed with the announcement of a privatisation plan – which will see majority ownership of the 4 largest clubs going into the hands of the national sovereign wealth fund, and several other clubs changing hands. It is anticipated that this will usher in opportunities for greater private ownership and new funding sources for the Saudi Pro League.
3.) Prioritising women’s football
Saudi Arabia has taken great strides to grow female involvement in football at all levels. In the last year, the number of registered female coaches rose from 119 to over 1,000. The senior women’s national team, launched in 2019, is now recognised by FIFA with an official world ranking. With almost 700 players from 20 nations playing in the women’s premier league and first division the league development is promising. Finally, female Saudi fans are now much in evidence at matches, home and abroad – and were especially notable in Qatar whenever the Saudi ‘Green Falcons’ were playing.
4.) World-class excellence in events
Saudi Arabia is committed to an ambitious plan to host major football tournaments. Already, it holds the annual Spanish and Italian SuperCups and will host the FIFA Club World Cup in December. It will take another step up as a major event host when it stages the 2027 Asian Cup. To meet these commitments, a vast upgrade in playing facilities is underway, with new stadia planned for construction in Riyadh, Dammam and Qiddiya. National development projects, such as NEOM, Diriyah and AlUla, are all incorporating football infrastructure and pathways.
In conclusion, the Saudis have set a clear path, building solid and durable foundations for developing football at all levels on a sustainable basis. This will ultimately, true to Vision 2030, build a football economy. In the short-term the introduction of foreign players (in practice a blend of star names complemented by competent international players) is already lifting playing standards and raising interest in Saudi football to investors, broadcasters, sponsors and global fans. In the longer term it is hoped that it will catalyse winning national teams, a successful women’s football structure, a top 10 league, and a burgeoning reputation for hosting excellent events in world-class facilities in the Kingdom