Sports in Saudi Arabia

The sports sector has been identified as a key catalyst of the KSA’s economic diversification and a major contributor to GDP, while taking more citizens beyond the sedentary comfort of air-conditioning.

Rebranding as an economically diversified economy is a comprehensive socioeconomic initiative laid out in black and white in Vision 2030. Sports—in fact health in general—is identified as key to the entire process, first, in reversing generations of sedentary living.

To this end, since its launch in 2018 the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA) has championed individual motivation and community sports, notably, too, for women: Its goal? To lift the nation’s physical activity participation ratio to 40% by 2030. Tellingly, General Authority for Statistics (GAStat) Figures for 2020 indicate that since 2018 the figure had already risen 13% to 20%.

Moreover, substantial investment in sporting infrastructure and training, all underpinned by proactive policy is transforming the Kingdom’s profile into that of a sporting tourism address. As Minister of Sports, Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Al Faisal, told TBY, the learning curve in creating a unified sports ecosystem is steep, revealing how, “We looked at the federations [and] the other stakeholders that are with us, even the private sector [engaging] with them continuously with our workshops and [listening] to them, because on the ground, they face different issues.”

So, what is the Kingdom’s formula for success in such a hugely competitive international arena? “Sports,” the minister continues, “are a main pillar of Vision 2030. We focus on three areas, one of which is mass participation, and our role is to get everyone active in the country in order to deliver health benefits and economic returns. The second area is getting elite and amateur athletes to succeed and represent the country and have them at the highest level of international sport. The third aspect is…”

…The Economy of Sport

The contribution of sports to the Kingdom’s GDP had vaulted from USD2.4 billion in 2016 to USD6.9 billion in 2019. And today the Kingdom has established itself as the preeminent Middle Eastern force behind growth of the sports sector. A key factor is the population—the region’s largest—where two-thirds are under 35 years of age. In 2020, the Kingdom kicked off its USD4-billion Tourism Development Fund in a move to foster private-sector participation in related megaprojects.

EY research indicates that the Saudi sports events sector will scale a value of USD3.3 billion by 2024 with revenue surging by annualized 8% per year—official estimates put the figure at USD4.8 billion by 2030. The numbers keep impressing, as USD2 billion in state investment is earmarked up to 2024. That is broken down into USD670 million in support of private sector sports clubs and USD320 million for private sector clubs’ sponsorships to 2023.

The Host with the Most

In the sports business athletes on the field are nothing without people in the stands. Hosting prestigious sporting events is therefore the name of the game, one that has clear economic benefits. While football is particularly popular, martial arts, golf, and motorsports are also big honeypots.

Impressively, while much of the world remained under COVID-19 restrictions, in 2021 the Kingdom hosted the Saudi International Golf Tournament, as well as the Diriyah E-Prix, the Saudi Cup, the Global Series Extreme E race, and the WWE Crown Jewel event. Add to that the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in Jeddah, and the race is clearly being won. Citing the success of Formula One, the Sports Minister stresses that “We did not just host the event; we upgraded the entire Corniche in Jeddah. That is something that the country and the city benefits from.” Meanwhile, ongoing social and cultural opening can only have a catalytic effect on the process.

Sprinting Across the Value Chain

Saudi Arabia’s megaprojects such as NEOM, explored elsewhere in this book, prominently feature sports facilities, and the burgeoning sporting ecosystem in turn represents commercial opportunities. These run the gamut from local design firms to construction companies and all those industries that supply a complete project, from cement to high-tech infrastructure, and the facilities management firms that maintain them. And all this means employment for nationals, as well as a knock-on effect for the tourism, leisure, and food and beverage sectors.

Ultimately, the upward trajectory of the Kingdom’s sports sector is all about the “contribution of the government toward developing the sports infrastructure, making sure that we have the right setup in terms of regulations, rules, governance, and facilities—all of the issues that were not looked at in the past [but that] will support the development of a thriving sports industry within the Kingdom.”