Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pursuing his goal of establishing the kingdom as a major sporting power. The hugely expensive transfer coup by the Al-Nassr club with football legend Cristiano Ronaldo is an important means to an end.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s paean to Saudi Arabia’s football must have sounded sweet to the ears of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi Pro League is “very competitive” and he is “so proud” of the move to the Kingdom, said the five-time world footballer at his pompous presentation as a newcomer to Al-Nassr FC. Royally paid, Ronaldo immediately fulfilled his intended role as PR ambassador for Saudi Arabia, which wants to establish itself as a sports powerhouse in the style of Qatar.

“Our league, our nation and the generations to come” will inspire the superstar, Al-Nassr said. For the “kicker”, however, the transfer of the 37-year-old is “perhaps the biggest sports washing coup ever seen outside of the World Cup in Qatar”. Critics repeatedly warn that the aim is to distract attention from massive human rights violations. The coup with the still dazzling Portuguese is the most spectacular stage of a strategy that the Saudi crown prince is pursuing with vigour.

Formula 1 races, boxing world championships, its own golf series, the Asian Winter Games in 2029 – for years Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the organizer of major sporting events and is expanding its influence on the international sports scene. Football is increasingly playing the leading role, and the kingdom is positioning itself to host the 2030 World Cup.

The UK’s public investment fund took over Premier League club Newcastle United in 2021. Saudi Arabia’s sports minister hopes that Manchester United and Liverpool FC, which are up for sale, will also be handed over to Saudi investors. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino maintains good contacts with Riyadh. In 2021, he appeared in a Saudi promotional video praising the country’s development. Saudi Arabia is said to have been behind the billion-euro deal for the rights to new competitions and other rights that Infantino tried to push a few years ago – ultimately unsuccessfully.

In recent years, it has been a thorn in the side of the Saudi royal family that Qatar of all places has overtaken its big neighbor in international sports politics. With the Ronaldo deal, which will probably cost at least half a billion euros in salary and bonus payments, Saudi Arabia now sees its time come. “Every country would love to host the World Cup,” Saudi sports minister Abdulasis bin Turki al-Faisal recently told the BBC. A joint application with Egypt and Greece is under discussion.

Soccer is the national sport in Saudi Arabia. The fan culture can compete with other countries. Ronaldo should now draw even more attention to the country’s league with his radiance. “I’m convinced that he can make a difference with his aura,” said ex-national player Erich Beer. More stars could follow Ronaldo and the lure of money, believes the 76-year-old, who played for Al-Ittahad Jeddah from 1979 to 1981. “Those who criticize me for coming here don’t know, they don’t understand football. I don’t care about their criticism either, it’s my decision,” said Ronaldo, who recently turned his back on Manchester United in a strife.

Human rights activists have long been alarmed by the efforts of the kingdom. Opponents of the government are persecuted with all severity in Saudi Arabia. Freedom of expression and assembly are severely restricted, alcohol and homosexuality are strictly forbidden. The US secret services also hold the crown prince responsible for the brutal murder of the government-critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. However, the conservative kingdom has opened up socially in recent years, and women’s rights in particular have been strengthened. He also wants to be an inspiration for young people and women in the future, Ronaldo assured at his first appearance in the new jersey.

Girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez also made a statement. She wore an abaya at the on-pitch reception ceremony, which earned her much praise from the Saudi media. Women in Saudi Arabia commonly don this long, black robe over their clothes in public. According to a newspaper report, Rodriguez respects the traditions of the kingdom. Ronaldo’s new masters should have liked this gesture too.