PtG Article 01.02.2024

The Saudi prince: "Our ambition is to organise a better World Cup than Qatar"

Getting interviews with the people behind Saudi Arabia's sports strategy is difficult, but Andreas Selliaas spent time with the Saudi Prince Abdullah during a visit to the country in December 2023. The prince is a former minister for sport and today he is an influential multi-owner of football clubs in many countries.

Prince Abdullah's servant comes to us with a cup of tea. We sit in chairs in a horseshoe in front of the prince. He wears a grey robe and sits behind a large desk with a huge TV screen on the wall to the left. The screen is split, and the main picture shows the English Championship game between Ipswich and Norwich.

Among all the books behind one of the glass doors in the bookcase behind him, we can glimpse Mario Puzo's "The Godfather", on the floor behind the desk are some boxes of DVD films and along the wall are framed photos, including of his father and the deceased Saudi king.

The agreement we have with him is that we are there to get background material on his work in international football and why football is so important to Saudi Arabia.

Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al Saud is an influential man. According to senior analyst Stanis Elsborg from Play the Game who has researched the power players in Saudia Arabia's sports strategy, the prince played a crucial role in the early involvement of the Saudi government in the sports world, serving as the president of the Saudia Arabia's General Sports Authority, the predecessor to the later Ministry of Sports. 

In 2014, Prince Abdullah became Minister of Sports in Saudi Arabia and at the same time head of the Saudi Olympic Committee. He held these positions until 2017.

Now it is December 2023, and we have been given 20-25 minutes after much negotiation. He rarely gives interviews, he says, and almost never in his own home. He is a very busy man, he tells us.

Interview on conditions

After chatting warmly for a while, the prince agrees to be interviewed with the microphone on, but only wants to be quoted on a few questions.

The requirement is that he must approve the quotations. He will not officially answer questions about migrant workers' rights and other human rights issues. 

Before we pushed the recording button, we small-talked on different topics like foreign attitudes toward Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plans for Saudi Arabia.

The prince believes that Saudi Arabia is unique and that they are not worse than other countries, just different. It is the official Saudi version we are served.

"I love football and business," he tells us.

When asked if he invests in football because he loves football or business, he replies:

"I think it's a combination of both. I made my money in manufacturing, but I believe in my heart I always loved sports and I wanted to work in sports. So, in 2006 I got a short report from my paper company and I couldn't read it for one week."

"And I thought that I lost passion, so I wanted to shift and only work in sports. And so that's why I'm working in sports because I'm passionate about sports and because it's a business also."
Besides being a Saudi prince, Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is a trained engineer and founder of the Saudi Paper Manufacturing Company in 1989. In the paper industry, and eventually the recycling industry, he made good money and now he uses this money to invest in sports and especially in football.

Today he is a low-profile multi-owner of football clubs in several countries and in several parts of the world and is involved in the operation of the clubs Beerschot VA (Belgium), Al-Hilal United (United Arab Emirates), LB Châteauroux (France), Kerala football team (India), and Sheffield United (England).

He is extremely keen on American sports and has previously stated that the American model is better than the European one, partly because they have a salary cap in the US.

Shopping centre Via Riyad

The investments in football and luxury shopping centres like Via Riyad are part of an attempt to get Saudis to spend more money at home and also attract tourists. Photo: Tariq Mikkel Khan

Sports investments should attract both Saudis and tourists

We sit and chat with the prince on his own property, which is approximately 10 minutes’ drive from the luxury shopping centre Via Riyad, which opened in May 2023 and is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030.

The luxury mall is the first of its kind and more are planned. It will contribute to economic growth in Saudi Arabia, partly because Saudis spend more money at home, and partly because foreign tourists want to go here. At least that is the plan.

This is also the logic behind the massive investments in football through the government's purchase of four top clubs (through the Public Investment Fund (PIF) in the top division and the purchase of world stars for Saudi clubs. 

The authorities, led by Crown Prince Salman, want Saudis to spend more time and money on teams in Saudi Arabia and for foreigners to see them as a football country to travel to.

Our conversation with the prince takes place not far from the king's palace and all the central state institutions of Riyadh, which are located on the hill above us.

It's not a flashy place where the prince lives, but gardeners are working in the flower beds by what looks like an empty hexagonal swimming pool, there is a tennis court and a football pitch on the property, and to the right of the entrance, the prince has his own private mosque.

Fed up with criticism

Obviously, football plays a central role in Saudi Arabia's future plans.

At the time of our visit, Saudi Arabia is hosting the Club World Cup in Jeddah, and it is in many ways the kick-start of the journey to the football World Cup in 2034 which FIFA President Gianni Infantino has guaranteed them.

Many have been critical of the way Saudi Arabia has gained power in international football, but Prince Abdullah couldn’t care less.

"I think that now Saudis are very confident of themselves. We know that in this world there is a lot of hypocrisy, and you have to live with it. And if you put our record against any other country's record, when it comes to our history, we have never invaded any other country."

The prince shares the rage in the Arab part of the world about what is happening in Gaza and the way the Palestinians are treated.

Many people we have spoken to in Saudi Arabia believe that the West is not doing enough, and they also believe that they treat Ukrainians and Palestinians, Russia and Israel differently. They ask why Russia should be banned from international sports and not Israel. Or why sport is used as a tool in these conflicts at all.

At the same time, he begs the rest of the world to treat Saudi Arabia differently from the West.

"We have some common values. We have something different, but we're proud of our history. We're proud of our values, we're peaceful people."

"Like many of the things we've done in the past, and some of the things, that we are criticised for in the West, we hope that we will still be criticised for that in 50 years because some of it is because we're different. And some people, they will not accept that you're different." 

"We always want to be better, but not for the sake of other people. We want to be better for the sake of ourselves." 

Excited about the World Cup in Qatar

Saudi Arabi did not like it when Qatar got the 2022 World Cup and did everything they could to destroy the party for their smaller neighbour.

When that did not work, they quickly reconciled themselves to the idea of letting the World Cup in Qatar run its course and rather go for the football World Cup for themselves.

Prince Abdullah is very excited about the football World Cup in Qatar and believes it was the best World Cup ever.

"I loved the World Cup. I've been to many World Cups. It was the best World Cup by far. I attended the Saudi-Argentina game with my granddaughter because I was really optimistic about that game for some reason."

"I told everybody before the game, it will be very good game for Saudi Arabia. So that's why I flew out to watch the game and came back. And then I attended the semifinals and the final. And the one week I spent at the semifinals and final was maybe the best time I spent at a sports event ever. Because everywhere was clean, safe, close and with no need to travel or fly." 

"Like the World Cup in any other country, you probably have to fly to go to other matches. That was a very special World Cup and I hope Saudi Arabia can do a better one. Okay, that's our ambition."

Saudi prince and journalists

Three journalists on a rare visit to a Saudi prince's basement TV room PrinceAbdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al-Saud with Jan Jensen  Ekstra Bladet DK (left), Sam Kunti from Josimar/Forbes, and Andreas Selliaas from Photo: Tariq Mikkel Khan

Down in the basement

Our time is up and the appointment he had after our meeting turns out to be an appointment to watch football in his basement together with friends.

We ask if we can see the place where he usually watches TV for business and pleasure.

The prince takes us down into a huge TV room with many screens on one wall, a large sofa facing the TV wall and the walls full of signed kits from the teams he owns, but also from the teams he follows.

The pennant he received from FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2014, when he was sports minister, also hangs on the wall.

We can take pictures, provided he can approve the pictures before we publish anything.

His plan for the evening is to watch four games at once. Before we leave, we can take a couple of pictures and then he asks one of his drivers to take us to the airport.

The prince is still important to the Saudi sports project

In November 2023 Play the Game published a huge dataset on the scale and network behind Saudi Arabia's sports political strategy. It contains information about positions held by key decision-makers in Saudi Arabia as well as a comprehensive list of Saudi Arabian sponsorships in the world of sports. 

Despite being a former minister and president of the Olympic committee, Prince Abdullah is not in Play the Game's dataset but according to Stanis Elsborg his absence should not confuse us.

"While his current role may not encompass high-level functions within the regime, it is essential to remember that he is, after all, a member of the royal family and remains actively engaged in the sporting world, as evidenced by his ownership of Sheffield United," says Elsborg.

Being a former minister in Saudi Arabia carries significant influence, and with his network in the UK, Elsborg believes that Prince Abdullah can be an extremely important asset to the Saudi regime. 

"In recent years, the regime has expanded its diplomatic and business ties to the UK, and the connection has been strengthened further by the Saudi state ownership of Newcastle United. They have numerous strings to pull and an expansive web of connections, making them the most powerful emerging player in world sport," says Elsborg. 

Dive into the data set

Mohammed Bin Salman
Dataset on sports power relations in Saudi Arabia

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