Soccer great Lionel Messi is the brand ambassador for the Saudi Tourism Authority Image Credit: AFP

Western media is in dithers just about every time Saudi Arabia embarks on an ambitious venture to introduce international sporting personalities or events to the kingdom. Howls of sports washing are heard on TV channels or written up in printed media.

Just this past week, two events captured the headlines in some of the western media. The first involved the signing of Argentinian soccer player and renowned international star Lionel Messi as a tourism brand ambassador for the country.

Messi is no stranger to Saudi Arabia. Back in 2011, he led his country in a friendly match against the Saudi national team. He has since returned to play on numerous occasions, including the 2019 Superclassico de las Americas and the 2020 Spanish Super Cup. More recently, his face was posted everywhere on billboards advertising the 2022 Riyadh Season entertainment festival organised by the Saudi government.

The multi-Ballon d’Or winner’s continued appearances in this country are in line with the kingdom’s plan to become an alluring hub for international sports events. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has signed a 10-year, $650m deal for the Formula One motor racing event. It has also hosted several major international golfing events and invested millions more by partnering with the WWE for annual wrestling events. It has also hosted several boxing heavyweight matches, the most recent being the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.

The Saudi partnership with Messi — one of the most recognisable athletes in the world — is arguably among its most notable achievements in introducing global players and events to the kingdom, where once only a sparse offering was on the plate. Messi has over 326 million followers on Instagram and can be expected to use his platform to promote Saudi Arabia, resulting in a positive effect on tourism.

Messi in the Kingdom

Ahmed al-Khateeb, the kingdom’s minister of tourism posted on Twitter that “This is not his first visit to the kingdom and it will not be the last,” with images of Messi being welcomed at King Abdulaziz International Airport. Princess Haifa Al-Saud, assistant minister of tourism, who took Messi on a tour of old Jeddah tweeted, “I am glad that he was mesmerised by its essence, heritage and beauty.”

Messi, along with his PSG teammate Leandro Paredes, himself posted a picture showing the footballer relaxing on a yacht while watching the sunset. “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi,” he captioned.

Sami Al Jaber, a retired Saudi football player and considered the best striker in Saudi football history remarked on Twitter, “It is a distinguished and unique step for Messi to become an ambassador for Saudi tourism due to the influence the player has, which will reflect positively on Jeddah’s position as a tourist destination.”

All positives from this end. But not so with some in the western media. One wrote that “Messi has enough money that his future grandchildren won’t need to work a day in their lives. He could have politely declined the Saudi offer and still lived out a very comfortable retirement. And yet, unless Messi has a hitherto undisclosed passion for spreading the word about Saudi Arabia’s undiscovered cultural highlights, this is all about greed.” There were several more criticisms saying much of the same thing.

The other event that drew some ire from the western media was that the English premier club, Newcastle United, would stick with their decision to play in a green and white away kit next season, according to The Daily Mail. “If it is true that Newcastle United is changing its away kit to match Saudi Arabia’s national colours, it exposes the power of the Saudi dollar.”

Now I live in this country and have been doing so for several decades. Readers who know me know that I have on occasion been critical in the past of the way the country does business, but all that has changed under King Salman. The unprecedented changes regarding human rights and specifically those for women are something never previously imagined.

There is the freedom to conduct business, explore the country, and do whatever you want as long as you do not harm others. And wanting to watch international sports events and figures is part of the parcel. Why should we be denied that?

This is not sports washing, but simply taking the kingdom to a higher level. Detractors must understand that.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena