JAKARTA, IO – One-upmanship in Middle Eastern sports just wretched up a notch as superstar Cristiano Ronaldo joins stateowned Saudi football club Al Nassr FC for reportedly a whopping US$241 million over 2.5 years.
Mr. Ronaldo’s transfer, involving the biggest football salary in history, beats Qatar-owned Paris St. Germain’s acquisition in 2017 of Brazilian player Neymar for US$200 million, at the time the world’s most expensive transfer.
The timing of Mr. Neymar’s transfer was significant. It demonstrated Qatar’s resilience at a moment when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spearheaded a failed diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state in a bid to force it to align its foreign and media policies with those of its main distractors.
Contrary to perceptions, Mr. Ronaldo’s move is about more than distracting from Saudi Arabia’s abominable human rights record. Human rights are just one of the kingdom’s reputational problems, even if they are what attracts the most attention.
Saudi Arabia seeks to alter an image entrenched over seven decades of a secretive kingdom that used its oil wealth to globally promote an ultra-conservative, supremacist, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.
In a bid to take Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, diversify its economy, cater to the aspirations of a young population, and create building blocks for the survival of his regime, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has introduced significant social and economic reforms while tightening the political leash.
Mr. Ronaldo contributes to that, even if he, at 37, is near the end of his playing career. Sports, particularly soccer, the most popular form of entertainment, is a pillar of Mr. Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan.
It boosts sports as part of the development of a modern entertainment industry in a country in which that was non-existent before the crown prince’s rise in 2015, and it contributes to a public health policy in which exercise and sports play a key role.