Saudi Arabia’s efforts to enhance its global image through sports, art, and music could cost the kingdom another nine-figure sum. The latest move is reportedly a $400 million-a-year offer to Argentinian football star Lionel Messi for the twilight of his career. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overseeing the spending, which is powered by excess revenue from Saudi Arabia’s role as the world’s biggest crude exporter. The petrostate’s rulers hope that this spending will excite its burgeoning younger generation and supercharge its tourism industry. However, critics say the efforts are aimed at varnishing an international image battered by a brutal war in Yemen and the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The kingdom is also pursuing a more opportunistic diplomatic track that has repeatedly put Riyadh at odds with Washington. Saudi Arabia wants tourism to account for 10% of its gross domestic product in 2030, by which time it hopes to be attracting 100 million visitors a year. To reach its target, Saudi Arabia has been looking beyond just professional sports, spending heavily to create an entertainment and leisure industry from scratch. The magnitude of its spending has made Saudi Arabia impossible to ignore for the world’s political and business elite. The kingdom’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the Group of 20 last year, boosted by the highest oil prices in about a decade, and it now boasts the world’s seventh-largest sovereign wealth fund, deploying billions both at home and abroad. However, campaigners say Saudi Arabia is deflecting attention from a poor domestic record on free speech and other human rights.
Saudi Arabia's multibillion-dollar makeover led by Messi and Ronaldo