On Monday, the Argentine was introduced as Saudi Arabia’s newest tourism ambassador during a visit to Jeddah, a Red Sea port city.
“This is not his first visit to the kingdom, and it will not be his last,” said Ahmed al-Khateeb, the kingdom’s tourism minister, in a tweet that included images of Messi arriving at King Abdulaziz International Airport.
Messi later posted a photo of himself relaxing on a yacht while watching the sunset, accompanied by Argentina and PSG teammate Leandro Paredes. “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi,” read the post’s caption, which was marked as a “paid partnership” with Visit Saudi, a subsidiary of the Saudi Tourism Authority.
Messi was later joined on his tour of old Jeddah by Princess Haifa Al-Saud, assistant minister of tourism. “I am glad he was captivated by its essence, heritage, and beauty,” Princess Haifa later tweeted.
The first point to make is that Messi does not have to accept whatever enormous sum Saudi Arabia has offered him. He earned $122 million in salary and sponsorship last year, making him the world’s second-highest paid athlete after LeBron James. Simply put, Messi has amassed enough wealth that his future grandchildren will not need to work a single day of their lives. He could have politely declined the Saudi offer and still lived out his retirement comfortably. And, unless Messi has a previously unknown desire to spread the word about Saudi Arabia’s undiscovered cultural highlights, this is all about greed. And the consequences will be lethal.
By accepting the position of Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador, Messi has effectively aligned himself with a regime linked to numerous human rights violations, including the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its devastating war in Yemen, which has resulted in a humanitarian disaster, and its crackdown on intellectuals, LGBTI+ people, reformers, and women’s rights activists.
Messi’s visit to Jeddah also highlights how the kingdom continues to use sports to improve its public image. This is known as sportswashing, a term coined by Amnesty International to describe oppressive governments’ use of sports to legitimize their regimes and distract from their human rights violations.
Families of political prisoners in the kingdom urged Messi to decline offers to become the face of Saudi tourism ahead of his most recent trip to the kingdom. Their letter, organized by the human rights advocacy organization Grant Liberty, stated that “the Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation.”
“By saying ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi, you are effectively saying yes to all of the human rights violations that occur today in modern Saudi Arabia,” read the letter, which was first published in February 2021. “However, if you say ‘no,’ you will send an equally powerful message: human rights matter, decency matters, and those who torture and murder do not get away with it.” “The world must stand up to those who trample on the rights of others.”
Messi’s association with the kingdom dates back to 2011, when he captained Argentina in a friendly against the Saudi national team. He has since made numerous appearances, including the 2019 Superclasico de las Americas and the 2020 Spanish Super Cup. He has also appeared on billboards promoting the Saudi government’s 2022 Riyadh Season entertainment festival.
The seven-time Balon d’Or winner’s return to Saudi Arabia is due to the kingdom’s strategic transformation into an enticing hub for international sporting events. Saudi Arabia has signed a 10-year, $650 million contract 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 some of the biggest boxing matches in recent memory in recent years.
Last year, a group led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – an entity led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – purchased Newcastle United, giving Saudi Arabia a powerful position in English football as well as an international platform to launder its reputation. It was also the latest football club to be purchased by a Middle Eastern regime with deep pockets, following Manchester City, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family, and Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by the Qatar sovereign wealth fund.
Saudi Arabia’s collaboration with Messi comes after David Beckham agreed to a $200 million deal to become Qatar’s cultural ambassador ahead of the 2022 World Cup. The English football legend will promote the country’s tourism and culture as part of a 10-year deal that begins in 2021.
“For Qatar, it is not only an inspiring moment to bring together some of the region’s biggest players and fans, but also an opportunity to show off the country, its history, and culture,” Beckham said last month.
As Saudi Arabia expands its influence in sports and entertainment, its newfound partnership with Messi – one of the world’s most recognizable athletes – is arguably one of its most significant achievements. The Argentine has 326 million Instagram followers and will continue to use his platform to promote Saudi Arabia, which will benefit tourism.
“It is a distinguished and unique step for Messi to become an ambassador for Saudi tourism due to the player’s influence, 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 country’s greatest strikers, wrote on Twitter.
The Saudi government now has a premier athlete with a built-in audience and platform ready to be used for political gain in Messi. While Messi was once praised for his humanitarian work with Unicef and his own charitable foundation, his recent alliance with Saudi Arabia raises concerns that he is willing to disregard human rights in exchange for lucrative deals with brutal dictators.