Business of Sport Saudi clubs’ $1bn outlay beats 4 of the ‘big 5’ leagues in Europe By Reuters September 10, 2023 Reuters/Al Hilal Media Office Brazil and Al Hilal star Neymar at training on August 1 Saudi Pro League clubs splashed out almost $1 billion in the transfer window in a bid to boost the domestic competition by attracting some of the world’s leading players, according to analysis from Deloitte published on Friday. The outlay of $957 million in the Saudi window, which closed on September 7, exceeded the spending of four of Europe’s “big five” leagues with only England’s Premier League clubs splurging more on transfers than those in the Middle Eastern nation. “This marks the first time since 2016 that another international league has outspent any of Europe’s ‘big five’ during a football transfer window,” said Izzy Wray of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group. “European football continues to be the benchmark for the game globally, and the Saudi investment in the game will divert its focus towards the infrastructure, to elevate the level of Asian football.” Saudi millions ‘creating two-tier system’ for football agents In an interview with Sky Sports published on Friday, Pro League director of football Michael Emenalo, who spent seven years at Chelsea, said he hoped the league had made “positive headlines.” “We look back with great satisfaction that we have put the league in a better place than it was previously,” he said. “We have been able to attract and embed some of the best players in the world. We have got now, as part of the league, very good players.” Privatisation Earlier this year, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced a Sports Clubs Investment and Privatisation Project involving league champions Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, Al Nassr and Al Hilal, with a host of top players moving to the league. The biggest Saudi transfer came from the country’s most successful club, Al Hilal, who spent €90 million ($96.34 million) to bring in forward Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain. In addition to the Brazil star, Al Hilal also spent big money on Aleksandar Mitrovic, Kalidou Koulibaly and Ruben Neves. Pro League champions Al Ittihad signed Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr brought in Otavio, Sadio Mane and Aymeric Laporte among others. Al Ahli, who returned to the Pro League following a season in the second division, also made a string of signings including Gabri Veiga, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy and Alain Saint-Maximin. “The implementation of the Kingdom’s privatisation program is likely to draw a wave of interest around the [Saudi league], potentially fuelling the current spending pattern for the windows to come,” Wray said. For all its expenditure, the Pro League still missed out on some of its biggest targets. Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah was the subject of interest from Al Ittihad, who reportedly had an offer of £150 million ($187.10 million) turned down, while ambitious bids from Al Hilal for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé failed. Saudi Arabia has made massive investments in soccer, Formula One, boxing, tennis and golf in recent years. Critics have accused Riyadh of using PIF to engage in “sportswashing,” in the face of heavy criticism of the country’s human rights record. “I would say that I don’t see historically what sportswashing has to do with it,” Emenalo said. “I’ve not seen a clear indication that this is anything but wanting to have one of the best leagues in the world to provide quality entertainment and leadership examples to the people of Saudi Arabia,” he added.