Communication / Marketing / Nations / Sponsorship

World Cup Watching

Is Saudi Arabia behind Egypt's FIFA sponsorship play?

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: June 13, 2018

In amongst the hype surrounding FIFA’s 68th Congress (on Wednesday) and the World Cup starting (on Thursday), world football’s governing body announced that it has signed its first African sponsor. The Egyptian tourist and investment authority becomes an Official African Regional Supporter of Russia 2018, only two days before the tournament.

No specific details of the deal have been provided, although FIFA will be relieved by its signing as Russia has struggled to attract sponsors ahead of this summer’s competition. However, the significance of this deal goes way beyond any short-term supplement to the governing body’s finances.

In recent months, it has become increasingly apparent that Saudi Arabia is now a prime mover in global football, the country associated with several major proposed developments. In particular, it is widely believed that the Gulf nation is behind moves to reformat and relaunch the Club World Cup.

Along with Japan’s SoftBank, Saudi Arabia is thought to be working in conjunction with East Asian interests to introduce the new club competition, which has been reported to be worth $25 billion. The nature of East Asian interest remains unclear, though Alibaba is a sponsor of the tournament in its current format, while Wanda is behind the recently introduced China Cup.

Egypt’s sudden emergence as a FIFA partner is telling in this context, as the North African nation is closely allied with Saudi Arabia. Following the latter’s severing of diplomatic ties last year with Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup, Cairo’s government immediately moved to support is Riyadh counterparts.

As this regional diplomatic feud has intensified, Egypt’s support of Saudi Arabia has remained steadfast, in return for which the country has been given $2 billion in financial and economic assistance by Saudi.

Saudi Arabia’s confrontation with Qatar was initially prompted by Donald Trump’s visit to the country, since when the two adversaries have been engaged in moves and counter-moves against one another.

Indeed, Riyadh’s desire to fund FIFA in its development of a new global club tournament is perceived by some as being a retaliatory measure taken in response both to Qatar’s high profile soft power signing of Neymar last summer (by Paris Saint Germain, owned by Qatar Sports Investments), and its much smaller neighbour’s hosting of the World Cup.

In turn, both countries have engaged in a lobbying and public relations war, which has often centred on Washington DC. Saudi Arabia have grappled for the United States’ attention, each having sought to discredit and undermine the other with endless stories highlighting their weaknesses and difficulties.

In Saudi Arabia’s case, this has often involved targeting Qatar’s World Cup hosting as the basis for inflaming international concerns about its fitness to host the tournament.

Egypt’s surprising elevation to FIFA sponsor therefore raises some interesting questions, not least of which is why it has decided at this point to become a sponsor. In addition, it would be interesting to know who or what is behind this apparently sudden decision.

With Saudi Arabian money and influence embedding itself across world football, it also raises issues pertaining to FIFA’s role in the Gulf conflict between Riyadh and Doha. This is especially pertinent, as once Russia 2018 concludes the clock will start ticking down to Qatar 2022.

This latest development further calls into question how FIFA’s sponsorship portfolio is being organised and managed. After all, what once seemed like a purely commercial exercise increasingly seems to be being hijacked by competing geopolitical interests, a game that Saudi Arabia and its allies seem very willing to play.




About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK), where he is also a Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Founding Co-Director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He has worked in football across the world, for various organisations including companies, federations, and governments. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick