The transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia holds significant importance for the Gulf monarchy’s goals in the world of sports.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

This collaboration has been celebrated as a significant moment in history.

One of the most renowned soccer players in the world arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Cristiano Ronaldo was welcomed with a lavish ceremony, accompanied by enthusiastic children wearing the yellow and blue jerseys of his new club.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s success in luring the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on a two-year contract with the kingdom’s Al Nassr FC is the Gulf monarchy’s latest step in realizing its sporting ambitions – seemingly at any cost.

Per reports from state-owned media in Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo is expected to receive a salary of $200 million annually from Al Nassr, making him the top-earning soccer player in the world.

Soon after the 37-year-old joined Al Nassr, the team’s Instagram account saw a significant increase of 5.3 million new followers. The club’s official website became unavailable due to exceeding its data limit from the sudden influx of visitors, and the hashtag #HalaRonaldo – which means “Hello, Ronaldo” in Arabic – was a popular trend on Twitter in the Middle East for several days.

Experts believe that his hiring in Saudi Arabia is a component of the country’s larger strategy to broaden its income streams and establish a strong presence in the global sports arena.

The kingdom’s recent actions can be interpreted as an attempt to improve its reputation, which was damaged by the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and the ongoing war in Yemen that began in 2015.

Critics have denounced the kingdom for engaging in “sportswashing,” which is the practice of using sports to improve one’s public image.

“I believe that Saudi Arabia came to the realization a few years ago that in order to be a dominant global player, relying solely on military might is not enough,” stated Danyel Reiche, an associate professor and visiting research fellow at Georgetown University Qatar, in an interview with CNN.

“He suggested that investing in soft power is necessary and Qatar’s success serves as an example. He also mentioned that Saudi Arabia is adopting Qatar’s approach in sports, albeit with a delay of 25 years.”

US actor Morgan Freeman (2nd L), Qatari singer Dana al-Fardan (2nd R), and Qatari YouTuber Ghanim al Muftah (R) perform during the Qatar 2022 World Cup opening ceremony on Sunday.

During the opening ceremony of the Qatar 2022 World Cup on Sunday, American actor Morgan Freeman, Qatari singer Dana al-Fardan, and Qatari YouTuber Ghanim al Muftah performed together. However, some Arabs and Muslims have expressed feeling hurt by the media coverage of the event.

Qatar’s nearby country has been heavily criticized after being awarded the opportunity to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup last year.

Despite facing similar accusations of using sports for political gain, the smaller Gulf state has been considered a successful host for the tournament. This is in part due to Morocco’s advancement to the semifinals and Saudi Arabia’s victory against eventual World Cup champion Argentina in their first group match, which has shed light on a different perspective of the Middle East to the rest of the world.

The Gulf countries are in a fierce rivalry to establish themselves as the top destinations for entertainment and sports in the region. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, which are all located close to each other, each host their own Formula One racing events. However, their competition extends beyond just the region, as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have also acquired prestigious European soccer teams.

Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, stated that Riyadh is trying to catch up with its neighboring countries who have already recognized the significance of investing in sports. This is particularly important for Riyadh as its primary source of income, oil, is slowly being rejected.

Chadwick stated to CNN that there is an ongoing effort to build stronger economies that are not solely reliant on industries related to oil and gas.

Al Nassr, Ronaldo’s recent team, has the support of Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a branch of Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The PIF has been instrumental in the country’s efforts to diversify its economy.

@Cristiano is a step in making the kingdom a major player in the sport.

— Connect the World (@CNNConnect) January 4, 2023

According to Reiche of Georgetown University, this is also a symbol of interconnectivity, globalization, and embracing the world beyond our borders.

According to Omar Al-Ubaydli, director of research at Derasat think tank in Bahrain, there have been several significant developments in the sports world recently. These include hosting the Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua world heavyweight boxing championship in 2019 and launching the LIV Golf championship. These moves are seen as important pieces in the economic restructuring puzzle.

The kingdom is actively working to expand its economy and change its reputation, despite facing backlash for its human rights violations and mistreatment of women. Saudi Arabia is currently hosting a variety of events, from desert parties to collaborations with famous soccer players. In fact, Argentinean player Lionel Messi signed a profitable endorsement deal with the kingdom last year.

At 35 years old, Messi, widely considered the best player in the world, concluded the World Cup in Qatar by leading his team to victory over France. This solidified his role as an ambassador for the kingdom and increased his value even more.

According to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on Middle Eastern soccer, the acquisition of influential global figures can counter the monarchy’s longstanding image of being secretive and extremely conservative. Dorsey shared this insight with CNN’s Eleni Giokos on Wednesday.

According to Al-Ubaydli, the kingdom aims to utilize prominent international sports as a means of promoting its openness to the world.

The Saudi Aramco oil refinery at the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields in Saudi Arabia.

The current surge in oil production in Arab countries, particularly at the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields in Saudi Arabia, may mark the end of their oil boom. This was captured by Belenkaya Marianna’s photograph of the Saudi Aramco oil refinery, published by SIPAPRE/Sipa/Associated Press.

In 2021, a group of three parties, with PIF as the main owner, acquired the English Premier League team Newcastle United on behalf of Saudi Arabia. This decision sparked controversy, with concerns raised by Amnesty International and other human rights advocates about the potential overshadowing of the kingdom’s human rights abuses.

Critics are already voicing concerns about Ronaldo’s involvement with Saudi Arabia and are imploring him to bring attention to human rights concerns in the country.

According to Reiche, Saudi Arabia is facing a negative perception, particularly following the death of Khashoggi. However, the country’s recent investments in sports and entertainment are not a mere attempt to improve their image, but rather a means of promoting development, societal progress, and international engagement.

According to reports, Saudi Arabia is considering submitting a bid to host the 2030 World Cup alongside Egypt and Greece. However, the country’s tourism ministry stated in November that it has not yet officially made a bid. Chadwick suggests that Ronaldo’s contract with Al Nassr could potentially strengthen Saudi Arabia’s bid if they decide to pursue it.

Chadwick suggests that the acquisition of Ronaldo may provide Saudi Arabia with the opportunity to enhance its commercial success, particularly if it leads to the attraction of other talented individuals from around the world.

Chadwick stated that it is crucial to view Ronaldo as more than just a tool for political gain. He also emphasized the commercial aspect of Ronaldo and his role in Saudi Arabia.

According to Chadwick, Ronaldo’s transfer to Saudi Arabia demonstrates the country’s desire to be recognized as a top contender in the international football community.

The digest

The Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates has a meeting with Syrian President Assad in Damascus, indicating a potential improvement in relations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus on Wednesday in the latest sign of thawing relations between Assad and the Gulf state. The meeting addressed developments in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to UAE state news agency WAM.

  • Abdullah bin Zayed visited Assad for the first time since their meeting in November 2021, which resulted in the restoration of relations. In March 2022, Assad also made his first visit to an Arab nation since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

  • The reconciliation efforts between Assad’s regime and former enemies have been ongoing. Recently, discussions between Syrian and Turkish defense leaders took place in Moscow, marking the highest-level meeting between the two sides since the start of the Syrian war. However, despite this regional progress, the daily lives of Syrians have yet to see improvement due to Western sanctions still in place.

The President of Turkey, Erdogan, has stated that he may have a meeting with Assad.

During a speech on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed interest in potentially meeting with the Syrian leader to work towards creating peace.

  • Erdogan made these remarks in response to the meeting between the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of both countries in Moscow. He stated that after this meeting, the foreign ministers will meet and then the leaders will come together.

  • Why this is important: The gathering would signify a significant change in Turkey’s position on Syria, as for the past ten years, Ankara has been the main supporter of political and armed groups working to overthrow Assad. The Turkish army currently has a presence along the Syrian border and in northern Syria, where they support opposition forces. Erdogan has also promised to launch another invasion into northern Syria with the goal of establishing a 30-km (20-mile) “safe zone” that would be free of Kurdish fighters.

Iran has closed a French cultural center due to the publication of Khamenei cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.

On Thursday, Iran declared the termination of a French research institute located in Tehran due to the publication of cartoons by French magazine Charlie Hebdo that mocked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Shia Muslim clerics.

  • Iran called in the French ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday to express their dissatisfaction with satirical cartoons released by Charlie Hebdo. These cartoons, which depict the Iranian supreme leader, were published as a gesture of solidarity with the Iranian citizens who have been demonstrating against their government and its actions.

  • The significance: The relationship between France and Iran has worsened greatly following the protests that began in Iran last year. The French government has openly expressed support for the protests and condemned Iran’s handling of them. On Thursday, Catherine Colonna, the French Foreign Minister, denounced Iran’s lack of press freedom and judicial independence, stating that press freedom does exist but is monitored by an impartial judge in an independent judicial system – something that Iran is not familiar with.

Around the region

Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performing onstage at the Olympia, in Paris on November 14, 1967.

The renowned musical influence of the legendary Egyptian performer Umm Kulthum resurfaced this year with her inclusion in Rolling Stone’s “200 Greatest Singers of All Time” list.

Umm Kulthum was ranked 61st on the list and was the sole Arab artist to be included. The magazine noted that she is unmatched by any Western singers.

Umm Kulthum was born in a small village located northeast of Cairo, the capital of Egypt. She became incredibly famous and was hailed as “the heart of the pan-Arab world,” according to a music magazine.

The writer stated that her powerful deep singing voice had the ability to blur the lines of gender. She was able to convey a wide range of emotions in intricate songs that could last for an hour, captivating crowds like a passionate preacher.

Known as “the queen of Arabic singing,” her songs were a blend of traditional Arabic poetry and popular tunes that still resonate with younger audiences. Among her most well-known compositions are “Inta Uumri” (you are my life), “Alf Leila Weileila” (a thousand and one nights), “Amal Hayati” (hope of my life), and “Daret al-Ayyam” (the days have come around). Some of her tracks have been remixed with modern beats, becoming popular in Middle Eastern clubs.

The vocalist’s unmatched singing can still be heard in numerous traditional coffee shops in the neighborhoods of Old Cairo and other regions of the Arab world.

Millions of people flooded the streets of Cairo in 1975 to mourn the passing of Umm Kulthum.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Picture of the day

Women athletes aim their air rifles while competing in a local shooting championship in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on January 3.


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