How Saudi Arabia’s sports takeover began almost 30 years before LIV Golf and Ronaldo


Not too long ago, it might have seemed inconceivable that multiple NBA superstars would become aware of the goings-on in Saudi Arabian professional soccer. Yet over the summer, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo both weighed in on Al Hilal’s pursuit of French star Kylian Mbappé, as reports emerged that the club was willing to commit more than $1 billion for a year of his services.

It was a stunning figure for anyone, including exorbitantly wealthy basketball players — and it’s easy to see why. The highest-paid NBA players — playing in one of the most popular professional sports leagues in the world — earn roughly 5% of what Al Hilal was prepared to spend on Mbappé.

The players’ social media posts came in jest — James posted a Forrest Gump GIF to insinuate how fast he would run to accept a similar offer; Antetokounmpo jokingly insinuated he could pass as Mbappé — but regardless, it represented another breakthrough into the American sports’ consciousness initiated by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Weeks later, James traveled to Saudi Arabia and visited with Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, the Saudi minister of culture. James has not commented publicly on the reason for his trip.

These moments have become more frequent in recent years, especially in the wake of LIV Golf’s creation, but they did not arrive overnight. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has used sports and high-profile athletes to launder its global image — what critics have called sportswashing — for decades and appears set on ramping up those efforts in the coming years.

“We are in a really huge transformation, softening the image,” Majed Al Sorour, chief executive of the Saudi Golf Federation, said on the sideline of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October.

After Cristiano Ronaldo announced he would be signing with Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, Amnesty International put out a statement saying the move “fits into a wider pattern of sportswashing in Saudi Arabia. It is highly likely that the Saudi authorities will promote Ronaldo’s presence in the country as a means of distracting from the country’s appalling human rights record.”

Here’s a timeline of some of the most pivotal moments of the country’s foray into the sports world — specifically golf, soccer, Formula One, tennis, boxing and WWE — and where things could go from here. — Kyle Bonagura

Additional reporting by Tom Hamilton, Austin Lindberg, Mark Ogden and Mark Schlabach

Jump to: Manchester United partnership | WWE 10-year deal
Ruiz-Joshua rematch | Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Ronaldo to Al Nassr FC | PGA-LIV merger

1971: The Saudi Public Investment Fund is first established by King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Its initial goal is to “help establish companies of foundational importance to the Saudi economy, including many ‘national champions.'”

1977: Williams Formula One team secures sponsorship from Saudi state-owned airline Saudia and becomes known as Saudia-Williams, a deal that would last through the 1984 season.

August 1978: Brazilian soccer star and 1970 World Cup winner Rivelino joins Al Hilal, becoming the first big name to move to Saudi Arabia.

1980: Saudia-Williams wins the F1 constructor’s championship and the F1 driver’s title with Alan Jones.

June 24, 1989: Saudi Arabia’s soccer team wins the FIFA under-16 World Cup, beating Scotland in the final.

Oct. 15-20, 1992: Saudi Arabia hosts the first King Fahd Cup

By the time the 1990s rolled around, Saudi Arabia had established themselves as the new dominant powerhouse in Asian soccer, winning back-to-back AFC Asian Cup titles in 1984 and 1988. The 1992 edition of the competition, taking place in Japan, was an opportunity for them to equal the tournament record of three titles. They fell short, however, losing to the hosts in the final.

Weeks ahead of the 1992 AFC Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia created the King Fahd Cup with the champions of five continents: Concacaf (U.S.), Conmebol (Argentina), AFC (Saudi Arabia) and CAF (Ivory Coast). Denmark, the champions of Europe, were unable to participate because of a scheduling conflict.

In front of 70,000 fans at the King Fahd International Stadium, Saudi Arabia’s Fahad Al Bishi scored the first goal in the tournament’s history as the home side beat the U.S. 3-0, but it was Argentina, led by Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone, who marched to the title.

The tournament was such a success that Saudi Arabia expanded it to six teams in 1995, then eight in 1997, when it was officially recognized by FIFA under a new name, the FIFA Confederations Cup. Mexico became the first hosts outside Saudi Arabia in 1999, and ever since the tournament was automatically assigned to the FIFA World Cup hosts a year earlier, starting with Korea and Japan in 2001 until the last edition of the event, which took place in Russia in 2017, won by Germany. — Mark Ogden

Dec. 21, 1996: Saudi Arabia wins the AFC Asian Cup for the third time, becoming the most successful Asian national soccer team, having also won it in 1984 and 1988. It has since been overtaken by Japan, which won in 2000, 2004 and 2011 to add to its 1992 title.

Jan. 21, 2008: Manchester United visits Saudi Arabia to play Al Hilal in Sami al-Jaber’s testimonial game in Riyadh.

Aug. 17, 2008: Saudi Telecom agrees to a £9m-a-year sponsorship partnership with Manchester United.

Sept. 3, 2013: Prince Abdullah bin Musaid al Saud, the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal FC from 2002 to 2004, acquires 50% stake in Sheffield United. In 2014, he would go on to become the general president of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, a position he held until 2017.

Dec. 15, 2013: WWE announces a deal to stage its first events in Saudi Arabia, three untelevised house shows from Green Halls Stadium in Riyadh, which eventually aired April 17-19, 2014. It would have another three-night slate of house shows in October 2015, this time in Jeddah.

March 2015: PIF moves under the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA), giving it “greater autonomy and better-defined national strategic responsibilities.” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is named chairman, and PIF starts to flex “its financial might globally, including in the sports world.”

April 25, 2016: Mohammed bin Salman launches his Saudi Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the country’s economy. As part of the plan, bin Salman says he wanted to bring professional sports to the country to create jobs and enhance the quality of life for its citizens.

May 4, 2017: WWE Wal3ooha debuts in Saudi Arabia, an Arabic-language program that also airs in other parts of the Middle East. The show features match highlights, analysis, previews and behind-the-scenes reports.

Oct. 19, 2017: Manchester United partners with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority

Manchester United agreed to a five-year “strategic partnership” deal with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, aimed at United lending business expertise to guide the Saudi Vision 2030 project.

The deal passed with little fanfare at the time. Given that United was one of sports’ biggest global brands with multiple lucrative commercial deals in Asia, the Americas and Europe, this appeared to be simply another addition to its portfolio of partners and sponsors.

But while eyes were focused on United’s ability to strike deals in all corners of the globe, the reality of the partnership was that it foretold a future of sporting expansion in Saudi Arabia.

When the deal was announced, United said the partnership “will see the club help Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority to create a sustainable and thriving soccer sector … a Memorandum of Understanding, which will see the 20-time English League champions help the GSA develop its soccer industry, as part of its 2030 Vision.”

United would lend its business and sporting expertise to Saudi Arabia. On the pitch, the club’s coaches would help set up a soccer structure and devise plans to improve the ability of Saudi youngsters. Off the pitch, the club’s commercial team, which had made United world leaders in the field of finding new revenue streams, would lend their expertise to Saudi Arabia’s sporting authorities.

Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the GSA, said: “This relationship is part of an exciting programme we are undertaking to transform sport in Saudi Arabia. Manchester United has a phenomenal reputation for delivery in these areas. We believe their knowledge and experience will be invaluable in making this project successful.”

Within the announcement was a reference to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030 plan, the ambitious project to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy and put sport at the front of the national culture.

United was seen as offering a fast-track toward achieving both ambitions. Nine years earlier, the club had struck a long-term sponsorship deal with Saudi Telecom during a visit to the country for a friendly against Al Hilal in Riyadh. It was a testimonial game for legendary Saudi Arabia player Sami al-Jaber that drew a sellout crowd of 70,000 fans. United’s visit emphasized their popularity in the region but also the attraction of soccer in a country that was still under the more conservative regime of King Abdullah.

“The club has a long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia and has over 5 million passionate fans in the region,” United’s then-managing director Richard Arnold said in 2017. “Our partnership with Saudi Telecom is the longest running of all our commercial partners. Having the chance to help shape the soccer industry in the kingdom is a great honour, and it is something where we believe we can make a big difference.

“I hope that this strategic alliance will benefit generations of Saudi soccer players, supporters and young professionals looking to work in soccer well beyond Saudi Vision 2030.”

Reports in 2021 linked Saudi Arabia with a potential takeover of United, but the Saudi Public Investment Fund ultimately struck a deal to buy Newcastle United instead. — Ogden

March 2018: Deals are agreed for Saudi Arabia to stage the Italian Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup, with the Spanish Super Cup deal reportedly running until 2029.

March 1, 2018: WWE to hold PLEs in Saudi Arabia

WWE announces a 10-year deal to host “premium live events” in Saudi Arabia, a substantial commitment after holding untelevised shows in the kingdom.

PLEs are WWE’s biggest monthly shows and usually held in North America. The deal pays WWE upward of $50 million per year.

WWE is a multibillion-dollar business, and its decision to stage major events in Saudi Arabia several times a year has surely lent credibility to the idea of other sporting events in the kingdom.

After all, some of the biggest stars in WWE have performed in Saudi Arabia, including legends such as The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bill Goldberg and Roman Reigns. The vast majority of WWE’s monthly premium live events (formerly PPVs) emanate from the U.S., so it has been a major coup for Saudi Arabia to land several a year.

The deal is met with plenty of skepticism, and many of WWE’s top stars boycott the events, including Daniel Bryan, who has since left the company for AEW. The agreement calls for WWE to deliver its top stars, often bringing wrestlers out of retirement for the Saudi shows.

There are even rumors Saudi Arabia would buy WWE before the company is eventually sold to Endeavor in April 2023 at a $9.3 billion valuation.

The PLE deal, finalized in March 2018, has been a rousing success for Saudi Arabia, which receives an international spotlight from the wildly popular wrestling company each time it returns to the country.

April 27, 2018: WWE stages its first premium live event in Saudi Arabia with the Greatest Royal Rumble, its first-ever 50-man, over-the-top battle royal. The event is available to subscribers of WWE Network. WWE star Sami Zayn declines to wrestle at the event because of Saudi Arabia’s strained relationship with Syria (Zayn, from Canada, is the son of Syrian immigrants.)

Sept. 28, 2018: Saudi Arabia hosts its first-ever professional boxing match, a super middleweight title fight between Callum Smith and George Groves in Jeddah. Smith scored a seventh-round KO of Groves in the World Boxing Super Series final. Both Groves and Smith are from England.

Oct. 2, 2018: Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. A U.S. intelligence report, released by the Biden administration in 2021, concludes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved of the assassination and that it was carried out by a group of operatives who reported directly to him. Khashoggi was a noted critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, and fallout from his death over the ensuing weeks causes sport leagues and athletes to at least temporarily reconsider the dealings and associations with the country and whether to travel there.

Oct. 7, 2018: Nadal, Djokovic agree to play in Saudi Arabia

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic agree to play in an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia, called the King Salman Tennis Championship, at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on Dec. 22.

The news that Djokovic and Nadal have agreed to play an exhibition match in Jeddah on Dec. 22, 2018, is broken on Twitter by Turki al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi General Sports Authority, on Oct. 7, 2018. Both Djokovic and Nadal tweet their excitement at the prospect of playing in Jeddah at a time when the country have stepped up their bids to host sports events, with boxing, Formula 1 and motor racing all heading there.

Roger Federer turns down an invitation, later saying he “didn’t want to play there at that time.”

However, after news of Khashoggi’s killing spreads, Amnesty International calls on Nadal and Djokovic to pull out of the exhibition, with Federer later in October confirming he turned down the chance to play in the event. Both Nadal and Djokovic, amid growing pressure, say they are talking to their respective teams about whether they should honor the commitment.

(The match is eventually called off because of a Nadal injury that requires minor ankle surgery.) — Tom Hamilton

Oct. 30, 2018: WWE’s top star, John Cena, is removed from his scheduled match days before he is scheduled to appear at Crown Jewel as the WWE faces mounting calls to cancel the event following the death of Khashoggi.

“WWE has operated in the Middle East for nearly 20 years and has developed a sizable and dedicated fan base,” WWE says in its Q3 earnings report released in October 2018. “Considering the heinous crime committed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Company faced a very difficult decision as it relates to its event scheduled for Nov. 2 in Riyadh.

“Similar to other U.S.-based companies who plan to continue operations in Saudi Arabia, the Company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority and stage the event. Full year 2018 guidance is predicated on the staging of the Riyadh event as scheduled.”

Nov. 2, 2018: WWE holds its second major event in Saudi Arabia with Crown Jewel, which features Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels’ first match in more than eight years (it will also be his last). WWE star Daniel Bryan declines to compete at the event in Riyadh because of human-rights issues. The country has faced criticism for its suppression of women’s rights; WWE has a deep roster of women’s wrestlers but none have competed at any of the events thus far.

Dec. 1, 2018: Golf Saudi is established “to unite stakeholders to enhance its position on the global stage, providing the most comprehensive opportunities for golf in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and diversifying the lifestyle of its members.” Golf Saudi hoped to build 13 public-access golf courses.

Feb. 3, 2019: Dustin Johnson wins the inaugural Saudi International, which is sanctioned by the DP World Tour, in King Abdullah Economic City. The field also includes Bryson DeChambeau, Ian Poulter, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka.

June 7, 2019: WWE’s third major event in Saudi Arabia takes place with Super ShowDown in Jeddah. Once again, the organization features legends who rarely compete, with The Undertaker vs. Goldberg in the main event. WWE stars Kevin Owens and Aleister Black decline to compete at the event, joining Bryan and Zayn in their boycott.

July 12, 2019: The second boxing match in Saudi Arabia features two practicing Muslims, Amir Khan and Billy Dib. Khan, a longtime boxing star in the U.K., scored a fourth-round KO of Dib, from Australia, in Jeddah.

Aug. 9, 2019: Turki bin Abdul Mohsen Al Al-Sheikh, adviser to the Royal Court and chairman of General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia, buys Spanish club Almería.

Sept. 16, 2019: Prince Abdullah completes a 100% takeover of Sheffield United.

Oct. 31, 2019: Women wrestle for the first time in Saudi Arabia

WWE’s fourth premium live event in the kingdom, another iteration of Crown Jewel, is staged, and for the first time, women wrestle in Saudi Arabia with a match between Natalya and Lacey Evans — they both wore full bodysuits as the country has a conservative dress policy for women.

Afterward, a charter flight set to return about 200 WWE employees — and many wrestlers — to the U.S. was grounded at King Fahd International Airport for several hours. According to a report from the Wrestling Observer, a dispute with the Saudi government over missed payments to WWE was a factor in the delayed flight, and the Saudi military police were present.

Twenty WWE employees, including CEO Vince McMahon, reportedly booked their own flights back. The following night’s smackdown in Buffalo was rearranged to primarily feature talent that wasn’t at Crown Jewel (mostly female wrestlers and NXT performers).

Nov. 4, 2019: WWE announces an expanded partnership with Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Entertainment through 2027 for two large-scale events per year.

Nov. 14, 2019: The Premier Golf League is registered in England by the World Golf Group, which planned to stage 18 events a year with $20 million purses starting in January 2023. The founders had early talks with Golf Saudi to fund the league.

Dec. 7, 2019: Saudi Arabia holds unified heavyweight championship rematch

The first two fights in Saudi Arabia didn’t carry worldwide appeal, but that changed with the kingdom’s third fight, a unified heavyweight championship rematch between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua.

The kingdom doled out an approximately $60 million site fee to bring the highly anticipated fight to Riyadh, the capital. A purpose-built arena was constructed for the fight on a UNESCO Heritage site in Diriyah, one of the oldest cities in the world, and torn down after the bout. Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing promoted the show.

Saudi Arabia entered the boxing space in 2018 with a super middleweight championship fight between Callum Smith and George Groves and followed up with a matchup between Amir Khan and Billy Dib one year later.

All four names were recognizable to boxing fans but neither matchup created any sort of buzz for the Saudis. That changed in a big way with the Kingdom’s third boxing offering.

Six months earlier, Joshua, a U.K. superstar and longtime heavyweight champion, suffered one of the biggest upsets in the division’s illustrious history when Ruiz stopped him in the sixth round.

The loss was Joshua’s U.S. debut, a thrilling battle before a sold-out crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden. For his chance at revenge, Joshua and Ruiz headed to the riches of the Middle East rather than the U.K., where Joshua routinely packed Wembley Stadium to the tune of 90,000.

The fight didn’t feature much action, but Joshua regained his three titles with a unanimous-decision victory over Ruiz.

On the night of the fight, there were torrential downpours — unusual in the desert climate — that forced the fighters to wear bags around their footwear to avoid slippage in the ring.

After the fight, the stadium was taken down, part of the policy for UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing promoted the event, which truly announced Saudi Arabia as a major player in the boxing industry. There was an outcry from media and many fans that Hearn was allowing the Saudis to sportswash by bringing one of the sport’s top stars to the kingdom rather than the U.K.

The success of the event led to talks of a super fight between Joshua and Tyson Fury for the undisputed heavyweight championship, where the Saudis were prepared to dish out $155 million to deliver the fight, but it never materialized.

Instead, Fury was forced to fight Deontay Wilder a third time while Joshua went on to lose his three titles to Oleksandr Usyk before Joshua was turned back in the rematch, too.

Joshua has a rematch with Dillian Whyte on Aug. 12 in London and there are already discussions underway for a meeting between Joshua and Wilder in Saudi Arabia in December or January.

Fury, meanwhile, will meet former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in a boxing match in Saudi Arabia on Oct. 27 in another highly anticipated fight for the Kingdom.

Dec. 12-14, 2019: Aramco, a Saudi state-owned petroleum and natural gas company, sponsors the inaugural Diriyah Tennis Cup, an exhibition featuring eight players, including Daniil Medvedev, who would eventually win the $3 million total pot.

Jan. 28, 2020: PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan sent a letter to members warning them of a new team golf concept being organized with “Saudi interests.” If the new circuit becomes a reality, Monahan said, “our members will have to decide whether they want to continue to be a member of the PGA Tour or play on a new series.”

Jan. 29, 2020: Six-time major champion Phil Mickelson plays in the Saudi International pro-am with Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation, and two men involved with the Premier Golf League.

Feb. 27, 2020: SuperShowDown, WWE’s fifth major event in the kingdom, is held with Bray Wyatt vs. Goldberg headlining.

March 2020: Aramco announces a “long-term” sponsorship agreement with Formula 1.

March 6, 2020: WWE is sued by a firefighters retirement fund in the U.S. District Court in New York. The suit claims, among other things, that WWE defrauded investors after it didn’t disclose that the Saudi Arabian government failed to pay it millions of dollars. (The suit was settled the following year for $39 million.)

November 2020: F1 announces Saudi Arabia will host its first race during the 2021 season, and it’s reported that the country will remain on the calendar through the 2035 season.

Nov. 15, 2020: Denmark’s Emily Kristine wins the inaugural Aramco Saudi Ladies International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, the first women’s professional tournament staged in the country.

March 2, 2021: The Ladies European Tour announces that Aramco will be the headline sponsor of four team series events in New York, London, Singapore and Jeddah. Each tournament will have a $1 million purse.

March 2021: By this date, Prince Abdullah has acquired stakes in soccer clubs KFCO Beerschot (Belgium, 50%), Al Hilal United (Dubai, 100%), Kerala United (India, 100%), La Berrichonne de Chateauroux (France, 100%).

April 2021: Prince Abdullah resigns at Sheffield United chairman, and the search for a new owner continues to date.

May 2021: Saudi Arabia sponsors FIFA research study into the staging of biennial World Cups.

May 4, 2021: The Telegraph of London reports Johnson, England’s Justin Rose, DeChambeau, Koepka and others have been offered $30 million to $50 million to join a “Super Golf League” being funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Mickelson was reportedly offered $100 million to help recruit players to the new circuit.

July 2021: PIF makes a £550 million investment in the McLaren Group, which includes McLaren Automotive, the automaker, as well as McLaren Racing, which includes the Formula 1 racing team.

October 2021: PIF acquires an 80% stake in Newcastle United.

Oct. 21, 2021: The sixth premium live wrestling event in Saudi Arabia, Crown Jewel, features Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar in the main event. Because of the pandemic, WWE holds one annual event in 2020 and 2021.

Oct. 29, 2021: Greg Norman named CEO of LIV Golf Investments

Two-time Open Championship winner Greg Norman is named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, and LIV Golf announces a $200 million investment to stage 10 new events on the Asian Tour over the next 10 years.

“This is only the beginning,” Norman said in a news release.

It was the first official step in what had been rumored for months, that Norman would become commissioner of a new Saudi-funded breakaway golf circuit.

At the time, Amnesty International UK chief Sacha Deshmukh told the Guardian of London: “Whether or not this is the harbinger of a future Saudi-backed Golf Super League, it’s yet another example of Saudi Arabia spraying its money around in an attempt to sportswash its appalling human rights record.”

Survivors and families of 9/11 victims also criticized players for doing business with the Saudis. LIV Golf’s plans were nearly derailed by Phil Mickelson’s controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s history of human rights abuses. But when LIV Golf staged its first event at Centurion Club outside London in June 2022, Mickelson and major champions Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia were among the players who jumped to the upstart circuit from the PGA Tour.

Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and others would soon follow them to the new league that had 54-hole tournaments with shotgun starts and team competition. LIV Golf lured the stars away with guaranteed contracts worth as much as $200 million, and $25 million purses for its tournaments. — Mark Schlabach

Dec. 5, 2021: The first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is held

The first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is held at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia signed a 10-year contract with Formula 1 to host a race in the country from 2021 onward. The deal, worth $55 million a year for the sport, followed a 10-year sponsorship agreement with Aramco worth more than $450 million.

The combination of the two marks the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as one of the biggest financial contributors to F1, but suggestions earlier this year that the PIF had entered a bid to buy the sport from owners Liberty Media proved bogus.

“I’ve already said publicly, the Saudis have been partners in a couple of things: they have a race there, Aramco is a sponsor, but they have never contacted us [about buying F1],” Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei said in June. “And frankly, $20 billion wouldn’t be an interesting price.”

In a statement after the decade-long contract was announced, Amnesty International said Saudi authorities “see elite-level sport as a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation.”

Ahead of the first race of the 10-year deal, Lewis Hamilton said he was “not comfortable” competing in a country with such a poor human rights record. At the second running of the event in 2022, a nearby missile strike launched by Yemen’s Houthis exposed the stark realities of racing in the country: The attack on an Aramco oil facility 6 miles east of the circuit resulted in a two-day inferno and a cloud of acrid, black smoke on the horizon as cars whizzed round the circuit.

F1 drivers, who had spotted the billowing smoke as they circulated the track during the opening practice session of the weekend, were shaken by the attack. Those concerns resulted in a series of meetings until the early hours of the following morning, with word spreading that the drivers intended to boycott the event and fly home.

After several hours of negotiations and assurances, the boycott threat was lifted. The most compelling argument to continue racing was that if the drivers chartered private jets out of Saudi, they would be leaving teammates, such as mechanics and support staff, in the kingdom to pack up F1’s traveling circus under the threat of further attacks.

Drivers made clear that they wanted to discuss the future of the event once F1 left Saudi Arabia, but the possibility of F1 walking away from its lucrative race deal was never truly on the table.

Under Saudi’s current plans, the race will remain in Jeddah until at least 2027, after which it is expected to move to a new purpose-built circuit in Qiddiya — part of a “megaproject” being built 30 miles southwest of Riyadh.

“We built this track [in Jeddah] to last, so in theory, yes we can have two races,” Saudi Automobile & Motorcycle Federation Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al Faisal said. “The sport is growing, the demand is growing, so I would not be surprised if Saudi, in the near future, will host two races, I wouldn’t be surprised. The demand is there, and we have two beautiful facilities.”

The prospect of a second race seems unlikely, however. Next year, F1 will hit its self-imposed limit of 24 races per season, and with four of those rounds taking place in the Middle East already, F1 has shown no real desire for a second race in Saudi Arabia. But with Saudi so keen to link its global image to motorsport, investment in either the teams or future races appears to be on the table. — Austin Lindberg

Feb. 6, 2022: Harold Varner III sinks a 92-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole to win the Saudi International, collecting a $1 million purse.

Feb. 17, 2022: Author Alan Shipnuck publishes Mickelson’s controversial comments about the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s history of human rights abuses. Mickelson said he was using the Saudi-funded breakaway golf league as leverage against the PGA Tour. “They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck.

Feb. 20, 2022: The newly formed Saudi Arabia women’s national soccer team plays its first international match, beating Seychelles 2-0.

Feb. 20, 2022: In the wake of Mickelson’s comments, several prominent PGA Tour players, including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Johnson and DeChambeau, pledge their loyalty to the PGA Tour.

March 2022: Aston Martin announces “long-term strategic partnership” with Aramco, which includes joint-title sponsorship of the British manufacturer’s F1 team.

March 16, 2022: LIV Golf announces an eight-tournament schedule for its new tour, which will include four-man teams competing over 54 holes with shotgun starts. The seven regular-season events will have $25 million purses; the team championship will have $50 million in prizes.

May 10, 2022: Lionel Messi becomes a Saudi ambassador, promoting tourism to the country. His contract, reviewed by The New York Times, shows that he could earn up to $25 million for his promotion over three years. His deal angered Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners and was a contributing factor as to why he was ousted from PSG.

June 1, 2022: LIV Golf announces much of its field for its first event outside London. The field includes PGA Tour members Johnson, Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell.

June 2022: WTA confirms Saudi Arabia has made contact. “We have received inquiries from Saudi Arabia as to interest in bringing a WTA event to the region,” a spokesperson for the WTA said. “As a global organization, we are always interested and appreciative of inquiries received from anywhere in the world and we look seriously at what each opportunity may bring [but] we have not entered into formal negotiations.”

June 9, 2022: LIV Golf stages its inaugural tournament at Centurion Club. South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel is the winner and collects $4 million. Monahan suspends 17 PGA Tour members for competing in London without conflicting-event releases.

June 30, 2022: LIV Golf hosts its first tournament in the U.S. at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Oregon. Survivors and family members of the 9/11 terrorist attacks hold a protest not far from the club. The field includes DeChambeau, Reed and Koepka.

July 2022: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund makes a £650 million investment in Aston Martin, giving it a 16.7% stake in the British automaker that also owns its namesake Formula 1 team.

July 20, 2022: Ryder Cup Europe team captain Henrik Stenson of Sweden is stripped of his captaincy for joining LIV Golf. He is replaced by England’s Luke Donald.

July 27, 2022: LIV Golf announces it is expanding its team series to 14 tournaments in 2023 with $405 million in purses.

Aug. 2, 2022: Mickelson and DeChambeau are among 11 LIV Golf players who file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour, alleging the PGA Tour used its monopoly power to quash competition.

Aug. 9, 2022: A federal judge denies a temporary restraining order that would have allowed LIV Golf players Matt Jones, Talor Gooch and Hudson Swafford to compete in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs.

Aug. 20, 2022: Joshua returns to Saudi Arabia for another heavyweight championship rematch, this time against Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah. Usyk defeated Joshua a second time and retained his unified heavyweight championship. The fight was promoted by Matchroom and raked in a reported $80 million-plus site fee. On the undercard, Ramla Ali became the first woman to compete in a professional boxing match.

Aug. 30, 2022: Reigning Open Championship winner Cameron Smith and five other players leave for LIV Golf two days after competing in the season-ending Tour Championship on the PGA Tour.

Sept. 29, 2022: The PGA Tour files a countersuit against LIV Golf, alleging it interfered with its contracts with players.

October 2022: Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister, says the Saudi government would support private sector bids for Manchester United or Liverpool.

October 2022: The first Saudi Arabia Women’s Premier League kicks off for soccer.

Oct. 28, 2022: The inaugural LIV Golf individual and team championships are held at Trump National Doral in Miami. Former U.S. President Donald Trump plays in the pro-am.

Nov. 5, 2022: Wrestler Roman Reigns and social media star Logan Paul square off in the main event of Crown Jewel. Wrestler-turned-manager MVP reportedly doesn’t appear at the event due to Saudi Arabia’s strict laws against apostasy, which is punishable by death. MVP is a former Muslim who later became atheist.

Dec. 2, 2022: Saudi Arabia announces a bid to host the 2026 Asian Women’s Cup in soccer.

Dec. 8-10, 2022: Medvedev, Nick Kyrgios, Cameron Norrie, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, Hubert Hurkacz, Dominic Stricker, Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka and Taylor Fritz compete in the second Diriyah Cup, with Fritz winning the tennis tournament and the $1 million pot. Amnesty International describes it as “the latest jamboree of Saudi sportswashing.”

Dec. 30, 2022: Ronaldo signs deal to play soccer in Saudi Arabia

Cristiano Ronaldo‘s decision to sign for Al Nassr FC in December 2022 and leave behind his glittering career in Europe was the moment when the soccer world sat up to take notice of Saudi Arabia and its plans to develop the Saudi Pro League.

Before Ronaldo’s arrival, the SPL was a destination for players seeking a final payday after unremarkable careers in Europe, South America and Asia. Although its biggest team, Al Hilal, was the reigning Asian Champions League champion, Saudi Arabia’s top division was nowhere near the radar of soccer’s biggest names.

But Ronaldo changed that in an instant, becoming the highest-paid player in soccer by signing for Al Nassr, the Riyadh-based team, for $75 million a year on a 2½-year contract. As reported by ESPN in April 2023, Ronaldo was regarded by the Saudi Ministry of Sport, which controls the clubs in the Saudi Pro League, as the first of up to 50 leading players it hoped would agree to move to the SPL.

By targeting 50 players from Europe’s major leagues, Saudi Arabia wants to raise the profile of its domestic game by injecting top talent, including reigning Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema, who joined Al Ittihad at the end of last season after the end of his contract at Real Madrid. But signing Ronaldo was the crucial first part of the plan because the theory was that he, as the most recognizable face in the game alongside Lionel Messi, would attract others to follow him to the Middle East.

That has proved to be the case. This summer has seen a raft of leading players leave the European game for Saudi Arabia, including Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea), Ruben Neves (Wolverhampton Wanderers) and Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan). — Ogden

January 2023: The president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, tells Motor Sport magazine that the country hopes to encourage F1 teams, specifically McLaren and Aston Martin, to move their headquarters from England’s “Motorsport Valley” to Saudi Arabia.

January 2023: Bloomberg reports Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund explored making a $20 billion bid for Formula 1 in January 2022. Liberty Media completed its acquisition of the series for $4.4 billion in 2017.

Jan. 19, 2023: The LIV Golf League and The CW network reach an agreement on a multiyear deal to broadcast tournaments over the air and on The CW app.

February 2023: Visit Saudi is in talks to sponsor the 2023 Women’s World Cup, but the deal is abandoned after protests from the women’s game.

February 2023: WTA CEO Steve Simon takes delegation to Riyadh.

Feb. 1, 2023: Saudi Arabia is announced as host of soccer’s 2027 Asian Cup.

Feb. 14, 2023: FIFA confirms Saudi Arabia as host of 2023 Club World Cup, to be staged in December.

Feb. 20, 2023: Former kickboxing champion and longtime boxing manager Amer Abdallah is appointed head of boxing by Skill Challenge Entertainment, the kingdom-controlled company led by Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Feb. 22, 2023: A federal judge rules that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, can be added as defendants in the PGA Tour’s countersuit against LIV Golf.

Feb. 26, 2023: For a fifth boxing event, the Saudis welcome social media star Jake Paul, brother of Logan Paul, to the kingdom for a fight with Tommy Fury, the younger brother of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. Fury won the fight via decision, spoiling Paul’s undefeated record. The fight was carried by ESPN+ PPV in the U.S.

March 2023: Saudia announces its return to F1, becoming the global airline partner of Aston Martin.

March 2023: The president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, said that Saudi Arabia hopes to host two Formula 1 races in the future, with construction of a second circuit in the country underway in Qiddiya just outside Riyadh.

March 2023: Formula Equal, a proposed F1 team composed of 50% men and 50% women looking to join the grid in 2026, is rumored to be funded by Saudi Arabian backers.

March 2023: Italy’s Serie A signs a new deal with Saudi Arabia around the Italian Super Cup, which will be hosted in the country for four of the next six years.

March 7, 2023: WTA announces a strategic partnership with CVC Capital Partners, with the “investment manager contributing $150 million for a 20% stake in what will be known as WTA Ventures LLC,” thus delaying a potential partnership with the PIF for the time being.

April 8, 2023: Skill Challenge Promotions, the boxing company founded by Prince Khalid, announces the signing of Badou Jack, the former super middleweight champion who won the WBC cruiserweight title on the Fury-Paul undercard. Jack, whose longtime manager Abdallah leads boxing efforts in Saudi Arabia, becomes the first notable fighter signed to a promotional deal with the kingdom. Jack is a practicing Muslim.

May 2023: Saudi Arabia starts talks with the CAF (the governing body of African soccer) over £200m sponsorship deal.

May 1, 2023: Reports emerge that Saudi Arabia (Jeddah) will host December’s ATP Next Gen Finals. Expected to be a five-year deal, although there is no confirmation yet.

May 27, 2023: Zayn and Owens defend their tag-team championships in the main event against The Usos after relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria were restored earlier that month. The appearance is Zayn’s first in the kingdom since a 2014 house show. Owens, who joined his best friend in the boycott, competed in the country for the first time since April 2018.

June 2023: Al Ettihad announces signing of reigning Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema.

June 2023: Saudi PIF announces majority ownership of four Saudi Pro League clubs — Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ettihad and Al Ahli

June 2023: Saudi company Sela announced as shirt sponsor at Newcastle United.

June 2023: Canelo Alvarez, boxing’s top star, is offered a fight against Jack in October in Saudi Arabia but ultimately decides to sign a three-fight deal with PBC beginning with a September bout against Jermall Charlo. Alvarez was ringside for Ruiz’s rematch with Joshua in Saudi Arabia and has long wished to fight in the Middle East, but the weight was an issue. Jack fights at 200 pounds and was willing to come down to 190. Alvarez is the undisputed champion at 168 pounds and offered to meet Jack at 180.

June 2023: Abdallah discusses the possibility of a megafight doubleheader in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 4, an event that would cost the kingdom hundreds of millions of dollars. The proposed event would feature Tyson Fury vs. Usyk in the main event for the undisputed heavyweight championship. Former heavyweight champions Wilder and Joshua would meet in the co-feature.

June 2023: Andy Murray reiterates that he won’t play in Saudi Arabia. “I wouldn’t play, no. I would imagine it will only be a matter of time before we see tennis tournaments played there.”

June 3, 2023: Usyk, the unified heavyweight champion and one of the most recognizable names in global boxing, signs with Skill Challenge Promotions. The Olympic gold medalist and former cruiserweight champion from Ukraine was in talks to fight Tyson Fury in April before negotiations collapsed.

June 6, 2023: PGA Tour merges with DP World Tour and PIF

The PGA Tour announces it is forming an alliance with the DP World Tour and PIF, which will combine the entities’ commercial assets under one umbrella to shape the future of men’s professional golf.

The framework agreement of a deal was brokered secretly with PGA Tour policy board members Jimmy Dunne and Ed Herlihy, and later commissioner Jay Monahan meeting with Public Investment Fund governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan and other PIF officials in London; Venice, Italy; and San Francisco to hammer out a deal. PGA Tour players, including policy board player directors Patrick Cantlay and McIlroy, were kept in the dark until hours before the deal was announced. Monahan was heavily criticized for keeping players and policy board directors out of the loop.

Eight days after the deal was announced, the PGA Tour revealed that Monahan was taking a leave of absence from his position. He returned to work on July 17. He told reporters that he took a break because of anxiety that resulted in mental and physical health concerns that required medical care. He later said the pressure of negotiating the surprising alliance and players’ reaction to it contributed to his anxiety.

Former AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson resigned from the tour’s policy board over concerns about the planned alliance with Saudi Arabia’s national wealth fund. In a letter to Monahan on Aug. 1, 41 players demanded changes to the tour’s governance and more transparency. Tiger Woods was added to the policy board as a sixth player director. — Schlabach

June 24, 2023: ATP Tour holds talks with PIF

ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi confirms the tour has held talks with PIF over potential investment.

He emphasizes it wouldn’t be a complete takeover, but rather investment looking toward media, data, technology and on the commercial side. “You have to preserve something which is almost sacred, the rules of the game. This is not a video game, this is not a movie.”

Just 18 days after the shock announcement of the LIV/PGA merger, Gaudenzi confirmed in an interview with the Financial Times that the organization had held “positive” talks with PIF over potential investment. Gaudenzi said honoring of the sport’s history and values — and working with existing stakeholders, rather than risking a LIV-style revolution — would be essential to any potential future investment.

“There’s many ways to become an investor of the ecosystem. It’s not only about creating a new tour or buying a tournament.”

In response to the news, Kyrgios tweets, “Finally. They see the value. We are going to get paid what we deserve to get paid. Sign me up.” — Hamilton

July 11, 2023: Fight announced between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou that will take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

July 11, 2023: Hearing held to discuss PGA Tour, LIV, DP World Tour alliance

The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations holds a hearing regarding the planned alliance between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf League.

Dunne and PGA Tour chief operating officer Ron Price testified in front of senators. Among the biggest revelations in documents released by the subcommittee are that Norman would be pushed out as LIV Golf League’s CEO and commissioner and that McIlroy had met with Al-Rumayyan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in November.

Subcommittee chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the hearing was “about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence — indeed even take over — a cherished American institution simply to cleanse its public image.”

Price revealed that the PIF has pledged to invest more than $1 billion in the new for-profit entity, known as PGA Tour Enterprises, that will be controlled by the PGA Tour.

Blumenthal asked whether the PIF would make additional investments, Price said, “That is in the complete control of the PGA Tour because it is a PGA Tour subsidiary. The board is controlled by the PGA Tour, and they have absolute control over how much funding they accept now and in the future.”

A broad non-disparagement clause, which was included in the final agreement by the Saudis the night before it was signed, was a sticking point for Blumenthal and a handful of other senators during the hearing. In letters, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter to scrutinize the deal, and Price testified that the PGA Tour is cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the planned alliance. — Schlabach

Aug. 15, 2023: Neymar completes transfer from PSG to Saudi club Al Hilal. He has reportedly been offered a two-year contract that will pay him around $100 million per year. A complete Saudi Arabia transfer tracker can be found here.

Aug. 24, 2023: The Saudi Arabia men’s soccer team announces it will play two friendlies at Newcastle United’s Stadium (St. James’ Park) against Costa Rica on Sept. 8 and South Korea on Sept. 12.

Aug. 24, 2023: Next Gen ATP Finals announces its tournament will be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this year and through 2027.

Sept. 7, 2023: By the closing of the Saudi transfer window on Sept. 7, the league had spent a total of $957 million over the 2023 summer transfer window, with the most notable signings being Neymar (from Paris Saint-Germain), Gabri Veiga (Celta Vigo), Riyad Mahrez (Man City), Sadio Mane (Bayern Munich), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham) and Ruben Neves (Wolves).

What’s next?

The past few years, in particular, have been a statement of intent, and the expectation is for the PIF’s tentacles to extend further into global sport. Only some of what’s to come has a concrete plan.

The PGA Tour’s Monahan has revealed few specifics about the planned alliance with the DP World Tour and PIF. He said during a news conference at the Tour Championship in Atlanta on Aug. 22 that he’s confident the deal will be done by the Jan. 1 deadline of the framework agreement.

Monahan wouldn’t address Norman’s future or whether the LIV Golf League will continue to play in future seasons. He would say only that he was confident they would reach a “positive outcome” for the PGA Tour. Monahan said PIF would be a minority investor in the new for-profit entity, PGA Tour Enterprises, and would allow the tour “to use the capital to be able to invest back in our product, to do things like further reduce commercial inventory in our broadcast, to further invest in our data businesses, to further invest in our media business, to potentially invest in entities and companies that we think are going to help us grow and diversify our fan base and the game.”

Recently, Professional Fighters League sold a minority stake to SRJ Sports Investments, a company launched in August by PIF. Upcoming PFL pay-per-view Super Fight events will be held in Saudi Arabia, starting in 2024.

A World Cup bid is inevitable, too, with the expectation being that Saudi Arabia will target the 2034 edition after reports this summer that it was withdrawing plans to bid for the 2030 event.

Beyond that, several possibilities remain. Just a few years ago, the idea the PIF could challenge and, eventually, partner with the PGA Tour would have seemed absurd. Who’s to say the same concept won’t continue to be applied in other ways in other sports? — Bonagura

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