Following an unprecedented expenditure of $1 billion, the Saudi Arabian transfer window officially closed on Thursday, marking the kingdom’s emergence as a formidable force in the global soccer arena. While their primary target, Mohamed Salah, did not make the move to the lucrative Saudi Pro League alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Karim Benzema, it appears inevitable that more star players will be enticed away from Europe’s top clubs in the future.
Despite reports that Al-Ittihad submitted a £150 million ($188 million) bid for Salah, Liverpool rejected the offer last week. Despite speculation that a renewed bid might materialize before Thursday’s deadline, no agreement was reached for the Egyptian international. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that Saudi Arabia’s extravagant spending spree is far from over. The nation has been actively investing in various international sports in recent years, including golf, boxing, Formula One racing, tennis, and soccer, leading to accusations of “sportswashing” aimed at improving its global image, despite a checkered human rights record.
Saudi Arabia’s commitment to elevating the status of its soccer league remains apparent. Based on reported transfer fees, Saudi clubs collectively spent slightly over $1 billion on player acquisitions during the transfer window, positioning them as the second-highest global spenders behind the English Premier League. Additionally, reports suggest that exorbitant salaries have been offered, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s deal reportedly valued at up to $200 million per year.
While there was considerable anticipation surrounding the potential signing of Mohamed Salah, the closure of the Saudi transfer window occurred relatively quietly. Demarai Gray made a move from Everton to Al-Ettifaq, and Luiz Felipe completed his transfer from Real Betis to Al-Ittihad. There were also rumours of Manchester United winger Jadon Sancho possibly making a move, but this transfer did not materialize.
A Star-Studded Transfer Window
The transfer activity of Saudi Arabia’s top clubs has been nothing short of spectacular, even without a deadline day deal for Salah. Cristiano Ronaldo’s decision to join Al-Nassr in December set the stage for more world-class players to make their way to the country. Champions League winners such as N’Golo Kante, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Aymeric Laporte have all joined the league, alongside Karim Benzema and Neymar. Attempts to secure the services of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe were unsuccessful.
This ambitious push into sports is supported by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which now holds a majority ownership stake in four of the top clubs: Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al Hilal. These efforts are portrayed as part of a broader strategy to leverage the nation’s oil wealth to create new job opportunities for the youth and potentially bid for the hosting rights of the 2030 men’s soccer World Cup.
The most significant signing of the window turned out to be Neymar, who joined Al Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain. Al Hilal, Saudi Arabia’s most successful team with a record 18 league championships and four Asian Champions League titles, had previously missed out on Messi, who joined MLS club Inter Miami, despite making a $332 million bid for Mbappe. In addition to Neymar, Al Hilal also secured the services of Yassine Bounou, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ruben Neves, and Aleksandar Mitrovic.