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Country Focus | Saudi prince extends sweeping reforms to sport

  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sees sport as a part of his vision to overhaul the Saudi Arabian society.
  • Grassroots participation in sport is extremely small in the country
  • Experts suggest a new sporting infrastructure must be built around football, the most popular sport.

Sport in Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of enormous change. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the heir to the kingdom’s throne and one of the two most powerful men in the country along with his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz – has targeted sport as one of the vehicles of his ambitious plan to transform the country.

Under Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s national transformation plan that kicked off last year, grassroots and professional sports will be developed to accomplish an ambitious set of goals including:

●    Diversifying the economy
●    Tackling massive public health problems
●    Providing a young, restless population with more entertainment and leisure opportunities
●    Getting Saudi athletes to perform at a level commensurate with the country’s standing as a regional power
●    Weaning loss-making football clubs off state funding. 

Vision 2030 states: “We intend to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities, working in partnership with the private sector to establish additional dedicated facilities and programs. This will enable citizens and residents to engage in a wide variety of sports and leisure pursuits. We aspire to excel in sport and be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally.”

The ambition is clear.

Yet it may not be realised. Prince Mohammed’s bold plans and methods are rocking Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. He wants to fundamentally change the Saudi economy and society. As this article was being researched, he has arranged for the arrest of scores of influential royals and businessmen in an anti-corruption drive. He has adopted a confrontational posture towards Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran. 

Beyond macro political concerns, Vision 2030’s sports elements face major challenges. They seek to create a modern sports ecosystem virtually from scratch and the bureaucratic machinery needed to execute the government’s plan is not in place. As one sports executive in the region puts it, “They don’t just have to climb Mount Everest, they have to build Mount Everest and then climb it.”

Taking all this into account, what actually is the outlook for sport in Saudi Arabia? What has happened so far and how is the sector expected to develop from here? And what are the opportunities for the rest of the sports world to become part of the story?

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Raw materials

Those excited by the prospect of Saudi Arabia’s sports industry point to an abundance of raw materials.

“Saudis are outgoing and physically strong, but decades without facilities and leadership degraded participation levels,” says one industry executive with strong experience in the market.

Forty-five per cent of the country’s 32m inhabitants are under the age of 25. Young Saudis are restless for the leisure pursuits and freedoms enjoyed by their counterparts in other countries, but curtailed by Saudi Arabia’s strict religious laws. Cinemas are banned, music concerts are rare, and mingling between men and women in public is highly restricted.

Evidence of the youthful population’s restless energy is seen in the vibrant Saudi YouTube scene. With few options available for entertaining or expressing themselves, Saudis have become the Arab world’s top publishers on the platform, accounting for eight of the region’s top 10 channels on the platform according to Forbes.

Saudi Arabia has good general infrastructure and a baseline sporting infrastructure including modern multi-sport stadiums in around a dozen ‘sports city’ complexes dotted around the country. But grassroots facilities are few.

Of course, the state has access to unparalleled wealth to fund its policies, despite the collapse in oil prices since 2014. The Public Investment Fund, charged with investing the country’s oil revenues, plans to become the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, controlling $2tn – another goal of Vision 2030. In a dramatic illustration of Saudi ambition and spending power, the most eye-catching Vision 2030 project to date is Neom, a 26,500-square-kilometre futuristic city to be built from scratch on the north-west Red Sea coast at an expected cost of $500bn.

Political backing

Perhaps the critical raw material is Prince Mohammed’s interest in sport as a tool for change. The crown prince is near the pinnacle of a royal family that has ruled Saudi Arabia as a strict autocracy since the middle of the 20th century. Any serious development in sport can only happen with impetus from the top.

This situation, some analysts say, appears unlikely to change despite the reform. “This is a regime that is tightening control in general,” says James Dorsey, an academic and journalist covering sport and politics in the Middle East. “What Vision 2030 is about first and foremost is reforming the economy, the diversification of the economy. It is certainly not about any form of political reform.”

Still, in sport there is new optimism that Saudi Arabia can build a significant sports economy. “If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said it was going to take a lot of time,” one local sports industry executive says of the sector’s prospects for development. His mind has been changed by recent initiatives pushed through by the prince, including allowing women to drive, allowing women into sports stadiums, and Neom. “If there is a time, now is the time. There is a lot of shifting in perception and mentality [in the country].”

Low base

It’s important to grasp that sport in Saudi Arabia is starting from a low base

During decades of austere religious rule, participation in sport has been neglected or discouraged, particularly for women. Saudi Arabia only began fielding women’s athletes in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, under pressure from the IOC.

Inactivity has contributed to major public health problems. Only 13 per cent of Saudis over the age of 15 exercise at least once a week, according to government figures. Studies put the obesity rate at about a third of the adult population. Over 17 per cent of adults have diabetes.

One of the tasks for sports officials is to create a sporting culture from zero. As one sports executive says, “There needs to be education for parents. The government needs to promote the value of an active lifestyle”.

At the elite end, football is far and away the number one sport, and is the exception in the otherwise barren Saudi sports landscape. As one local industry executive said, “In Saudi, football is not just king, it’s the only sport.”

The national team recently qualified for the 2018 Fifa World Cup. The domestic Saudi Professional League (SPL) is one of the best in the Mena region. Its top clubs compete strongly on the continental stage in the AFC Asian Champions League. It has a $1bn, 10-year media rights deal with commercial broadcaster MBC, and one local executive said it also generates tens of millions of dollars per year from its title sponsorship. But the clubs are underdeveloped commercially and many require state subsidies, a situation the government is trying to change via a privatisation programme.

Outside football, the most popular sports are motorsport, basketball and athletics. But performances by Saudi athletes and public interest pale in comparison to football. Saudi Arabia has won only three medals at the Summer Olympics since it began fielding teams in 1972. At Rio 2016, the country fielded only 11 competitors, in five sports.

Abdullah Abkar Mohammed of Saudi Arabia (right) competes in the Men's 100m Round 1 on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

Minor progress

Work on Vision 2030 began last year, but the sports projects (see Box 1) are still at a very early stage. Local industry experts say the government must next create detailed plans for the broad aims of Vision 2030 and appoint the right people with sufficient power to execute them. The government is currently working with overseas consultants to that end.

Andy Oldknow, a Mena sports marketing expert that runs his own agency in the region, AND Sports, says: “With all major change programmes, leadership, strategic planning and governance are fundamental. Leadership has clearly been applied – the challenge now is how the various public and private stakeholders can be activated under one universal strategy”.

Another sports executive in the region says: “If [Prince Mohammed] can get the right people around him, with the right skillsets, appropriately motivated, and get everyone working under a universal approach…the outcome can be exponential [development].”

There have been some signs of progress at the government body in charge of sport. Once the General Presidency of Youth Welfare but known since last year as the General Sports Authority, it has a new chairman, Turki bin Abdul-Mohsen, appointed this September. In the past few months it has agreed some eye-catching deals, including:

●    Memoranda of understanding with Manchester United and the Spanish football league, LaLiga, for joint work on football academies in Saudi Arabia.
●    Agreements to host a Race of Champions motorsport event in Riyadh, and the Drone Racing League World Championship, both in 2018.

One of the historic challenges of doing business in Saudi Arabia has been frequent changes of officials leading government departments. “We’ve been working in the country three years. In that time there have been three different heads of the football association,” one local sports executive says. Each new appointment brings a change of staff and policies in that branch of the government. The same executive says “It’s always short- to medium-term thinking. It’s hard to invest in a long-term strategy when you don’t know if your partners will be there in three years.”

Sports industry insiders are crossing their fingers that Prince Mohammed’s reforms will put an end to this.

Targeted development

Several industry experts we spoke to suggested Saudi Arabia should focus on developing a small number of sports, a strategy that has worked for other emerging nations.

Abu Dhabi’s targeted development of jiu-jitsu was highlighted as a potentially suitable model. Seeing the martial art as a field in which the small emirate could excel internationally and which encouraged physical and mental development, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed made jiu-jitsu training mandatory in schools and the army, and funded training schools across the country. As with the Saudi reforms, this wasn’t just about sport – Abu Dhabi approached jiu-jitsu as something which could “equip kids with tools so that they can succeed outside sport in future”, one local industry expert said.

Another expert suggested that any development of sport in the country must be built around football, due to its existing structure and fanbase: “To develop any sport in Saudi, it has to be in parallel with football…you need football to drive the interest in other sports up.” The country’s football clubs are often multi-sport clubs – many have teams in basketball and other sports.

Others note that, if elite success is the goal, football is one of the more difficult sports to target. “They need to move fast, and focus on a small number of sports,” says Lars-Haue Pedersen of sports consultancy TSE, which has previously been an advisor to the Saudi Olympic committee. “It’s all about football, but this is the toughest sport in which to progress.”

Previously, there have been efforts to develop several elite sports simultaneously. In 2015, the agency CSM Strategic was appointed by the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee (SAOC) to develop elite athlete programmes for the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and the Jakarta 2018 Asian Games.

Overseas expertise

Saudi Arabia will be heavily dependent on outside help to build its sports industry, so there should be plenty of opportunity for sports companies and organisations around the world to play a part.

Oldknow says, “Developing a dynamic sports eco-system will bring many challenges, some of which will require international insight and expertise which, given the maturity of the sector, makes a lot of sense. Ideally, such engagements should be structured in a manner that builds, operates and transfers both knowledge and capability”.

Saudis will be somewhat cautious about overseas assistance, some industry insiders say. “Arabs have been burnt by people coming in for a quick buck,” one says, so overseas firms “might have to invest a bit up front to reap rewards later on”.

Another executive said overseas companies “should be charged with not only taking fees, but leaving structure, protocol, policy, people… creating models the Saudis can adopt on their own terms.” If that can be achieved then, as he put it, “For stadium operators, stadium builders, sports consultants, sports bodies, commercial brands, federations…[the fact] the biggest economic power and population in the Middle East [is developing its sports ecosystem] can be nothing but good.” 

To be or not to be

The ambition is there. The raw materials are there. The structures and people are being put in place, if slowly. The right noises are being made about stability and strategic planning. Sport in Saudi Arabia is on the brink of turbo-charged development.

It needs big, moving political parts to work in its favour – the reforms will only happen if Prince Mohammed can see out Vision 2030. And there is plenty of work to do yet to get various arms of the state working effectively on the sports-related reforms.

Sport being used as a vehicle of national transformation and rebranding is nothing new. But if the Saudis manage it, their story will be a genuinely remarkable addition to the pantheon.

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Vision 2030’s sporting goals

In the first wave of Vision 2030 reforms, launched last year and running until 2020, the body charged with developing sport, the General Sport Authority, has four strategic aims. These are summarised as follows:

1.    Increase the percentage of Saudis over the age of 15 that exercise at least once a week from 13 per cent to 20 per cent.
2.    Increase the percentage of young people participating in sport authority programmes from 0.67 per cent to 15 per cent.
3.    “Improve investment of sports and youth facilities.”
4.    “Enable and ensure the sustainability of elite athletes to achieve high-level performance in the international arena to win medals in different games”, including achieving 10th place for the Saudi team at the 2018 Asian Games.

These aims are broken down into 22 projects for which $2.06bn has been allocated.

Other goals of Vision 2030 that have a bearing on the sports sector include:
●    Increasing household spending on cultural and entertainment activities inside the Kingdom from 2.9 per cent to 6 per cent.
●    Developing the high-speed broadband network to exceed 90 per cent penetration in major cities and 66 per cent in other urban areas. 
●    Expanding the role of women in society: “invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”
●    Reforming the education system, including by promoting “cultural, social, volunteering and athletic activities through empowering our educational, cultural and entertainment institutions.”

Two massive infrastructure projects under Vision 2030 will include development of modern sports facilities:

Qiddiya, a 334-square-kilometre entertainment district being built near the capital city Riyadh will include “theme parks, motorsport and thrill activities, a sports city, events and cultural activities, and opportunities to enjoy natural beauty and wildlife”, according to documents charting the Public Investment Fund Program 2018-2020. Construction is due to start next year.

Neom, the extraordinary futuristic city to be built in the north-west of Saudi Arabia, will “create the world’s best place to live in, by adopting best standards of living based on best global practices in the fields of public transportation, green spaces, environmental sustainability, work-life balance, health care, education, high-quality sport and leisure activities, state-of-the-art sports facilities, and world-class sporting event hosting.” (The Public Investment Fund Program 2018-2020).
 

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