Less than a year after signing with Paris Saint-Germain – one of Qatar’s most prominent sportswashing projects – Lionel Messi is now the face of yet another oppressive Middle Eastern monarchy.
The Argentinian was unveiled as the latest tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia during a trip to Jeddah, a port city along the Red Sea, on Monday.
“This is not his first visit to the kingdom and it will not be the last,” said Ahmed al-Khateeb, the kingdom’s minister of tourism, in a tweet with images of Messi being welcomed at King Abdulaziz International Airport.
Messi, who was accompanied by his Argentina and PSG teammate Leandro Paredes, later posted a picture of himself relaxing on a yacht while watching the sunset. “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi,” read the caption on the post, which was marked as a “paid partnership” with Visit Saudi, a subsidiary of the Saudi Tourism Authority.
Messi was later accompanied by Princess Haifa Al-Saud, assistant minister of tourism, as they toured various parts of old Jeddah. “I am glad that he was mesmerized by its essence, heritage and beauty,” Princess Haifa later wrote on Twitter.
The first thing to point out is that Messi does not need to take whatever incredibly large sum Saudi Arabia has thrown his way. Last year alone he made $122m through salary and sponsorship, making him the second-highest paid athlete in the world behind LeBron James. Simply put, 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. And the effects will be toxic.
By accepting a role as Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador, Messi has effectively aligned himself with a regime linked to countless human rights abuses, including the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its devastating war in Yemen that has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, and its crackdown on intellectuals, LGBTI+ people, reformers, and women’s rights activists.
Messi’s trip to Jeddah also underscores how the kingdom continues to use sports to beautify its public image. This process is known as sportswashing, a term popularized by Amnesty International to describe the use of sports by oppressive governments to legitimize their regimes and distract from their human rights abuses.
Ahead of Messi’s latest trip to Saudi, he was urged by families of political prisoners in the kingdom to refuse offers to become the face of Saudi tourism. Their letter, which was organized by human rights advocacy body Grant Liberty, noted that “the Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation.”
“If you say ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi you are in effect saying yes to all the human rights abuses that take place today in modern Saudi Arabia,” read the letter, which was first published in February 2021. “But if you say ‘no’ you will send an equally powerful message – that human rights matter, that decency matters, that those who torture and murder do not do so with impunity. The world must stand up to those who trample on others.”
Messi’s history with the kingdom dates back to 2011, when 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 Superclasico de las Americas and the 2020 Spanish Super Cup. He has also appeared on billboards advertising the 2022 Riyadh Season entertainment festival organized by the Saudi government.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s repeated appearances in Saudi Arabia are due to the kingdom’s strategic transformation into an alluring hub for international sports events. Over the past few years, Saudi has signed a 10-year, $650m deal for a Formula One motor racing event, invested millions in a Saudi International golf event, partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment for annual shows, and hosted the world heavyweight championship rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.
Last year, a group led by Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund – an entity headed by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – purchased Newcastle United, providing Saudi with an influential position in English football and an international platform to launder its reputation. It also marked the latest football team to be bought by a Middle Eastern regime with bottomless pockets, following the likes of Manchester City, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family, and Paris Saint Germain, owned by the Qatar sovereign wealth fund.
Saudi’s partnership with Messi comes after David Beckham signed a $200m deal to become Qatar’s cultural ambassador ahead of the 2022World Cup. The 10-year-deal, which began in 2021, will see the English football legend promote the country’s tourism and culture.
“For Qatar, not only is it an inspiring moment to bring together some of the biggest players and fans from around the region, but also a chance to show off the country, its history and culture,” Beckham said last month.
As Saudi continues to expand its influence in the world of sports and entertainment, its newfound partnership with Messi – one of the most recognizable athletes in the world – is arguably among its most pivotal achievements. The Argentine has 326 million followers on Instagram and will continue to use his platform to promote Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, will have a positive effect on tourism.
“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,” Sami Al Jaber, a retired Saudi football player regarded as one of the greatest strikers in the nation’s history, wrote on Twitter.
In Messi, the Saudi government has a premier athlete with a built-in audience and platform ready to be utilized for political gain. While Messi was once lauded for his humanitarian efforts with Unicef and his own charitable foundation, his recent alignment with Saudi raises concerns that he is willing to blatantly disregard human rights in exchange for lucrative deals with brutal dictators.