Why are High-Profile Footballers going to Saudi Arabia?

More and more top players are opting to play in Saudi Arabia but why is this the case all of a sudden? We delve into this.

He now joins up with Cristiano Ronaldo.

The summer transfer window is an exciting time in the football calendar but the amount of players going to play in Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront all of a sudden.

Every day, players from top European clubs are being linked with moves to the Saudi Pro League.

It is normal to see players move to less prominent leagues as they near the end of their careers, with the MLS being a common destination.

However, this is not the case with the Saudi Pro League as players who are not even in their prime are making the switch.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first global superstar to join the league when he signed for Al Nassr in January 2023.

Since then, the Saudi Pro League has continued to grow in stature as more players sign for their clubs.

But why has Saudi Arabia suddenly become the talk of the footballing world?

We look at some of the reasons why as well as some of the top players who have signed during the 2023 summer transfer window.

Who are the Team Owners?

Why are High-Profile Footballers going to Saudi Arabia -teams

The Saudi Pro League clubs are being privatised as part of a government project to help progress the sport in the country.

The minister of sport in Saudi Arabia said the changes would help the competition be among the top ten leagues in the world.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF), which also owns a majority stake in Newcastle, also has a 75% stake in Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Itiihad.

Saudi oil company Aramco is set to buy a percentage of Al Qadsiah while Neom has bought part of Al Suqoor FC.

Who has signed during the 2023 Summer Transfer Window?

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first high-profile footballer to go to Saudi Arabia, signing for Al Nassr in January 2023.

Since the 2023 summer transfer window opened, many big-name players have moved to clubs in Saudi Arabia and each day, players are being linked with Saudi clubs.

The Saudi Pro League’s transfer window opened on July 1 and will close on September 20, meaning many more will follow.

Here are some of the high-profile players who have made the move to Saudi Arabia during the 2023 summer transfer window.

Sadio Mane: Al Nassr

Why are High-Profile Footballers going to Saudi Arabia - sadio

  • Signed from: Bayern Munich
  • Fee: £24 million
  • Reported wage: £33 million per year

After just a year in the Bundesliga, Sadio Mane joined Al Nassr.

He now joins up with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Allan Saint-Maximin: Al Ahli

Why are High-Profile Footballers going to Saudi Arabia - asm

  • Signed from: Newcastle
  • Fee: £23 million
  • Reported wage: unknown

Allan Saint-Maximin will partner former Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez and ex-Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino in Al Ahli’s frontline.

ASM scored 13 goals in 124 games and registered 21 assists for Newcastle after joining in August 2019 from Nice.

Riyad Mahrez: Al Ahli

  • Signed from: Manchester City
  • Fee: £30 million
  • Reported wage: £25.6 million per year

After winning the treble with Manchester City, Riyad Mahrez completed his move to Al Ahli.

Manchester City agreed a fee understood to be worth up to £30 million with Al Ahli for the Algeria international.

Jordan Henderson: Al Ettifaq

  • Signed from: Liverpool
  • Fee: £12 million
  • Reported wage: £18.2 million per year

After 12 years at Liverpool and winning every major trophy, Jordan Henderson made the move to Al Ettifaq.

He will link up again with former teammate Steven Gerrard, who is the manager of the Saudi Arabian club.

Karim Benzema: Al Ittihad

  • Signed from: Real Madrid
  • Fee: Free
  • Reported wage: £172 million per year

Current Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema moved to Saudi Arabia after his Real Madrid contract expired.

During his time with Real Madrid, he won five Champions League trophies.

Roberto Firmino: Al Ahli

  • Signed from: Liverpool
  • Fee: Free
  • Reported wage: £17 million per year

The highest-scoring Brazilian in Premier League history, Roberto Firmino enjoyed a long and emotional goodbye to the Liverpool supporters, among whom he was a firm favourite after eight years at Anfield.

N’Golo Kante: Al Ittihad

  • Signed from: Chelsea
  • Fee: Free
  • Reported wage: £86.2 million per year

N’Golo Kante opted to leave Chelsea at the end of his deal, which had been hampered by injuries.

He now joins his France teammate Karim Benzema at Al Ittihad.

Edouard Mendy: Al Ahli

  • Signed from: Chelsea
  • Fee: £16 million (approximately)
  • Reported wage: £9.4 million per year

Edouard Mendy arrived at Chelsea in 2020 and had a good start.

However, he lost his place as first-choice goalkeeper and made just 10 appearances during the 2022/23 Premier League season.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – Al Hilal

  • Signed from: Lazio
  • Fee: £34 million
  • Reported wage: £17 million per year

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was one of Lazio’s key players, having been named the club’s player of the season in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

He was touted as a midfielder who would make his mark at the highest level of European football, with lots of top clubs expressing interest in him.

Milinkovic-Savic will now be turning out in the Saudi Pro League.

Unprecedented Salaries

One of the biggest reasons many high-profile players are joining the Saudi Pro League is the huge salaries, which European clubs cannot compete with.

Cristiano Ronaldo is earning around £175 million a year while Benzema will earn around £172 million per year.

Abdullah Al-Arian, author of Football in the Middle East: State, Society and the Beautiful Game, says:

“The Saudi league is offering unprecedented salary packages to players who still theoretically have some years left of playing at the top level.

“In doing so, it aims to prise them away from their current clubs some years before such a move would have been considered a ‘natural’ final chapter of their storied careers.”

The Saudis are not the first to try to use huge salaries to attract players away from Europe’s top five leagues but their efforts appear to be on a new scale.

Egyptian journalist Mostafa Mohamed says:

“What is happening now in Saudi Arabia is different and unprecedented.”

“The level of investment is in a completely different order of magnitude and with the backing of the Saudi regime this shake-up will be more sustained than previous high-profile player acquisitions in China, Russia or the US.”

The PIF recently became the major investor in the controversial LIV Golf.

PIF’s financing of sports teams and events form part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy away from oil reliance.

Why is Saudi Arabia suddenly spending huge sums on foreign players?

Saudi Arabia is looking to expand its economy through other industries in order to help guarantee its financial future.

The country is reliant on selling money through oil. However, that will not last forever and they need to diversify their economy.

Sport is one area they are looking to grow and that includes their football league.

They want to build their own leisure and entertainment industry and tap into the massive amount of interest there is among the Saudi Arabian population – of which 70% is under 40 – in football.

Football is massive in Saudi Arabia, with the national side beating eventual World Cup winners Argentina.

Saudi Arabia also sees football as a way of increasing tourism.

The country’s rulers have seen this interest and they’ve thought that instead of other people making money from our population’s interest in sport, let’s make it ourselves and keep the money within our borders.

It wants to put Saudi Arabia on the map and raise its profile.

Competitive Balance

Every day, numerous players are being linked with Saudi Arabian clubs and PIF officials have been involved in negotiations, often on behalf of more than one club.

Abdullah Al-Arian says: “By centralising control over the most important clubs, the PIF can oversee the billions of newly invested dollars.

“[It can] coordinate the distribution of superstar players across the different teams and maximise the competitive balance in a way that suits the league’s needs as it challenges the hegemony of Europe’s elite competitions.”

For footballers arriving from Europe, that competitiveness between teams may make the Saudi Pro League more attractive than other leagues known for paying big salaries but without much in the way of a footballing culture.

Before the arrival of global superstars, Saudi Arabia has been obsessed with football, with famous rivalries such as that between Al Nassr and Al Hilal.

The teams are also very successful in Asia.

Mostafa Mohamed says: “The Saudi Pro League is actually very competitive and relatively well established in the region.

“It ranks highly amongst the leagues in Asia, probably only behind… Japan and South Korea.”

Al Hilal has won more Asian Champions Leagues than any other club.

Meanwhile, the national team has qualified for the World Cup six times, pulling off a famous win over Argentina in 2022.

In fact, the lucrative contracts for international stars are a pivot for the country’s most-watched sport.

Al-Arian says: “In some ways, this signals a major shift for Saudi football.

“[It] has a rich and vibrant history whose growth has developed steadily in large part through investment in domestic talent and growing the fanbase through an emphasis on community-based clubs.”

Will it Last Longer than the Chinese Super League?

The sudden emergence of players going to Saudi Arabia draws parallels with the Chinese Super League.

In 2014, the likes of Brazil star Oscar and Atlético Madrid striker Jackson Martínez made the move to the Far East.

This happened due to the Super League being a direct order from the country’s president Xi Jinping.

He wanted China to host the World Cup, have a good national team and a domestic league.

However, the ruling Communist Party had a change of heart.

They did not like how large amounts of money was flowing out of China and into Europe.

They decided to end this and lots of different rules were implemented to control how many foreign players are in the Chinese Super League.

Like China Saudi Arabia’s aim is long-term.

But Saudi Arabia has more money and there is the belief they are more serious.

This influx of players is the beginning of a process and according to Sky Sports News, Saudi Arabia wants 100 of the best foreign players in its league within the next five years.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first to go and they tried to persuade Lionel Messi with a £315 million a year offer. However, he decided to go to MLS side Inter Miami instead.

This has not deterred Saudi Arabian clubs, with Ruben Neves joining Al Hilal and four Chelsea players making the switch to the Gulf country.

No player has been ruled out in terms of trying to bring them to Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Hamdi, an expert in football in the Middle East, believes the country has no problems attracting top talent.

He said: “They have the infrastructure.

“They have the country. They can host [a World Cup]. We saw already that in Qatar it was an amazing event.”

“This is a long-term vision where you can attract TV contracts, media, sponsorship and more visitors to the country.

“It’s not only players at a certain player or basically finalising their careers. You can see there are young players ready to take the step into the Saudi league.”

The Saudi Pro League has quickly risen to prominence, with several established players joining.

Not only is it just about the huge salaries but it is part of a wider plan to grow the sport and economy in Saudi Arabia.

And it appears evident that it will not be a short burst like the Chinese Super League.

As the transfer window continues, it will interesting to see which players will be next to make the move to Saudi Arabia.

Dhiren is a journalism graduate with a passion for gaming, watching films and sports. He also enjoys cooking from time to time. His motto is to “Live life one day at a time.”

  • What's New



  • Polls

    Which is your Favourite Pakistani TV drama?

    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...
  • Share to...