Saudi Pro League stakes $1 billion case for elite football status

14 September 2023 5 min. read
More news on

As Saudi Arabia continues to view its top football league as a key component of its Sports Vision, Saudi Pro League clubs have been empowered to spend close to $1 billion in their latest, record-breaking football transfer window.

Created in 1971 for the purpose of investing funds on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s government, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. With total estimated assets of $776 billion, it is among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.

While the fund might be most famous among football fans for its controversial takeover of Newcastle United, however, the Public Investment Fund is also splashing the cash on clubs closer to home.

Saudi Pro League stakes $1 billion case for elite football status

Historically, clubs competing in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League have been under the control of the Ministry of Sports, and relied on the state for financial support. But as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks to plough ahead with his Vision 2030 plans – aimed at diversifying the national economy away from its notorious dependence on oil revenues – PIF has taken majority ownership of four of the league’s biggest clubs: Riyadh-based Al Nassr and Al Hilal, and Jeddah-based Al Ittihad and Al Ahli.

The move supposedly signals the start of a process to privatise the Pro League’s previously state-owned clubs. However, as PIF is controlled by the country’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – PIF’s chair since 2015 – it is a matter of debate as to just how thorough this privatisation is. Whatever that conclusion, though, the move has led to unprecedented levels of investment in the Saudi Pro League.

According to a new study from Deloitte, Saudi Pro League clubs saw a gross spend in the 2023 summer transfer window of $957 million. This contributed to a net spend of $907 million – higher than every league in Europe excluding the English Premier League – which coughed up its own princely net spend of $1.39 billion for new players.

“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 from Deloitte. “While European football continues to be the benchmark for the game globally, the spending promise of new players and hence fans will strengthen the Saudi Pro League’s prominence.”

Premier League clubs actually spent a total of £2.36 billion ($2.94 billion) in the 2023 summer transfer window, setting a new record in their own right – but the new appetite for spending in Saudi Arabia seems to have provided the league with a novel new way of balancing its books.

The Pro League acquired 94 overseas players over the summer, including 37 recruits from Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues. The highest number of acquisitions came from the Premier League at a gross value of $312 million – meaning almost half of the $698 million in transfer fees received by Premier League clubs from overseas came from Saudi clubs.

That is not to say the rest of the Big Five European leagues didn’t take a sizeable amount to the bank from the Pro League, though. Receipts from Saudi Pro League clubs in Ligue 1 were $148 million; while in Serie A that was $122 million; La Liga picked up $116 million. The Bundesliga collected the smallest amount – $32 million – specifically for the lone transfer of Sadio Mané.

New money, old rope?

That last transfer flags up an interesting question for the Saudi Pro League in the season ahead, though. Mane is 31 years old, and arrives at Al-Nassr following a torrid season at Bayern Munich – where the forward netted just seven times in 25 appearances, and was alleged to have assaulted teammate Leroy Sané after a 3-0 drubbing by Manchester City.

Had Bayern attempted to offload the striker to another European club after such a campaign, they would likely have made a much larger loss one year on from signing him for $34 million.

While Mané has already notched five goals for Al-Nassr, that is unlikely to impress many international fans – and some will invariably suggest it says more about the strength of the league that a player who seemed to be underperforming in a top European division is now dominating in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the ‘marquee signings’ which the Pro League welcomed from the Premier League have unquestionable star-power, but based on their performances from years before arriving.

While die-hard fans of Cristiano Ronaldo will maintain his accomplishments in Saudi Arabia show him to be the ‘GOAT’, they come after an underwhelming period at Juventus and Manchester United. Since his arrival, Ronaldo has however made an impressive mark, hitting 20 goals in 20 appearances for Al-Nassr – along with a winners medal at the Arab Club Champions Cup.

In its report, Deloitte states that that the Pro League’s transformation to global footballing power is only just getting started. Wray contended that “the ambitious number of player acquisitions and the calibre of players signed by Saudi Pro League clubs demonstrate the Kingdom’s commitment to propelling the Saudi Pro League to become a leading football league on the world-stage” even though it is “still early days of what we can call phase one of the project”.

Perhaps the biggest indicator that the Saudi Pro League still needs to gain in allure is the rebuffed attempt to sign French superstar Kyllian Mbappé (despite an astronomical world-record $1.1 billion deal offered by Al Hilal) and now World Cup legend Lionel Messi, who instead decided to head to the Major League Soccer to enjoy the twilight of his career. 

“With the spending power of the Saudi Pro League already surpassing some of Europe’s ‘Big Five’, it remains to be seen the impact this will have on the make-up of elite football for future generations,” Wray concluded.