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Saudi Arabia wealth fund commits $2.3bn to football sponsorships

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has committed more than $2bn to new long-term football sponsorship deals this year in a sign of the kingdom’s growing ambitions in the world’s most popular sport.

The Public Investment Fund said in its most recent financial statement that it had entered into sponsorship agreements “with multiple football clubs amounting to SAR8.75bn [$2.3bn]” in the first eight months of 2022. Most of the money is for domestic football.

The deals underscore how PIF, which has assets under management of more than $600bn, is being used by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the country’s economy. Unlike most other wealth funds, PIF has a dual mandate to help develop the nation as well as pursue financial returns.

The bulk of the surge in spending comes from a series of 20-year commercial partnerships between portfolio companies Qiddiya and Jeddah Central and a handful of domestic football clubs, and a five-year agreement to sponsor the Saudi football league by property developer Roshn, which PIF owns.

The spending spree on football was revealed in accounts that PIF shared with investors in a $2bn bond it raised earlier this week.

The accounts also show that the sovereign wealth fund received a qualified opinion from KPMG for its 2021 financial statements, which means the audit firm could not get comfortable with certain aspects of the accounting. In an audit letter dated August 2022, KPMG flagged that it was “unable to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence” around transactions with PIF’s board directors and their family members. The PIF declined to comment.

The sharp increase in spending on football comes a year after the PIF bought Premier League club Newcastle United for just over £300mn. Since the takeover, the new owners have spent more than £200mn on players and hired a new head coach and chief executive.

Noon, an online retailer based in the Gulf and backed by PIF, became one of the team’s shirt sponsors in June this year. The company also has a commercial partnership with Manchester City, which is owned by a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

As Saudi Arabia pushes further into football, neighbouring Qatar is gearing up to host the World Cup next month. Qatar already has an established presence in European club football — it bought Paris-Saint Germain in 2011. The team’s chief executive, Nasser el-Khelaifi, is now chair of the European Club Association, a lobby group of elite teams.

Saudi ambitions in football are set to grow further. In August, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attended a boxing match in Jeddah with Gianni Infantino, secretary-general of Fifa, world football’s governing body. Speculation has since grown that Saudi Arabia will bid for the 2030 World Cup, with Egypt and Greece touted as potential partners in a three-continent candidacy.

A Saudi-led proposal would face competition from a joint bid from Spain, Portugal and Ukraine, and a likely pan-South American offer to mark the centenary of the first World Cup in Uruguay.

Saudi Arabia has also been making its mark in other sports. It has set aside at least $2bn for LIV Golf, a rival circuit to the PGA Tour, and Jeddah hosted Formula One’s first Saudi Grand Prix last year, part of a 15-year commitment.

Human Rights Watch, a campaign group, has accused the Saudi government of using football, motor racing and golf for “sportswashing”, which it defines as “an effort to distract from its serious human rights abuses by taking over events that celebrate human achievement”.

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