Mamdouh al-Muhainy
Mamdouh al-Muhainy is the General Manager of Al Arabiya and Al Hadath.

Is Ronaldo 'Whitewashing' Saudi Arabia’s Image?

Many commentators from across the globe have posed this question in different forms. The majority considered it “a political signing” aimed at enhancing Saudi Arabia’s reputation” rather than a sports deal. Assuming we accept this argument, a follow-up question becomes important. Clean it of what?

This may have been a reasonable explanation 6 or 7 years ago - when women were prohibited from driving and traveling and extremist preachers dominated the scene, issuing fatwas excommunicating believers. There could indeed be some logic to the argument that Ronaldo could play a public relations role, becoming an appealing image of a country that forbids music, shuts the doors of its cinemas, bans concerts, and has religious police chasing teenagers because of their choice of clothing. His massive star power could divert attention from a country closed to tourists with no economic or cultural activities.

The presence of a figure as popular as Ronaldo could be used to distract the world from what is happening in Saudi Arabia, but the fallacy in this argument is obvious. Saudi Arabia is currently doing everything in its power to compel the world to explore and discover the country and see its new image. The proactive moves Saudi Arabia is making have left it constantly in the headlines. You can find advertisements for NEOM, The Line, and AlUla on major global networks. Saudi Arabia wants the world to see it, not to hide.

In fact, nothing that Saudi Arabia may have wanted to “whitewash” in theory is still there. Saudi Arabia has changed dramatically in recent years. Thus, Ronaldo will not find anything to “whitewash,” as reforms, decisions, and sweeping changes have themselves changed the image of the country that had been associated with oil and terrorism (after 9/11) in the past. No public relations campaigns, nor any famous player and artist, could enhance the image of an unredeemable country. We have seen countries try and fail.

And all these explanations, in my estimation, stem from a preconceived notion of Saudi Arabia that has taken hold of the West’s consciousness and media, which have not gone past their old view of Saudi Arabia yet. They continue to see it as a country immersed in darkness and have failed to recognize the new phase the country is in after having changed at record pace despite having stagnated for nearly four decades before the Saudi Crown Prince and his vision made changes that no one had been expecting.

So, how can we explain Ronaldo’s move to the Saudi football league?

It is a purely sporting matter. If Western commentators had been reading my Twitter timeline, they would have become familiar with the disputes among rival fans of Saudi clubs and understood that the move is a sporting matter. As discussions in the West continue to revolve around whitewashing, fans of rival Saudi football clubs are calling on those who run their clubs to sign Lionel Messi. Indeed, their fear is that an Al-Nasr club, led by a player of Ronaldo’s stature, could become extremely difficult to beat (the Saudi football league is followed by fans outside the country as well, and Ronaldo’s presence has undoubtedly broadened its appeal).

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has already rolled out plans to invest in an array of sports (Formula 1, golf, and others) and develop its football league, which it hopes will become among the best in the world. This will have a positive impact on Saudi football and sports in general. Many football leagues have acquired brilliant players. David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were signed by American football clubs; does that mean the Americans were trying to whitewash their image? No, like the Saudis, they wanted to raise the level of competition and enhance their league. We are simply trying to make our league among the most competitive in the world; there is nothing more to it.