Mohammed bin Salman says he will ‘continue doing sport washing’ for Saudi Arabia

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has said he “doesn’t care” about accusations of sportswashing against his country.

Bin Salman, known as MBS, has presided over unprecedented spending on sport since becoming Saudi’s de facto ruler in 2017. Critics argue the investment is intended to distract attention from his country’s human rights abuses. But in a rare interview Bin Salman said he was not troubled by the accusations.

“If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing,” Bin Salman told Fox News in the first interview he has given fully in English.

Related: ‘It’s not a fad’: the truth behind Saudi Arabia’s dizzying investment in sport

Asked specifically how he felt about the term, Bin Salman said: “I don’t care … I’m aiming for another one and a half per cent. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that one and a half percent.”

Saudi sporting ambitions have extended from acquiring overseas organisations, with Newcastle United the most prominent, to running disruptive competitor competitions such as LIV Golf. But the kingdom has also been assiduous in striking deals to bring top sports events to Saudi, including this year’s Fifa Club World Cup and the Asian Games in 2029. Bin Salman says this approach is central to the country’s goal of becoming one of the world’s top 10 tourist destinations.

“When you want to diversify an economy you have to work in all sectors: mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, logistics all this,” MBS told Fox. “Part of it is tourism and if you want to develop tourism part of it is culture, part of it is your sport sector, because you need to create a calendar.”

Bin Salman argued that since his arrival in power tourism has substantially increased in importance to the Saudi economy. “We can see tourism used to contribute to Saudi GDP 3% now it’s 7%”, he said. “Sport used to be 0.4% now it’s 1.5% so it’s economic growth it’s jobs, it’s a calendar, it’s entertainment, it’s tourism. You can see that now we are ranked number one in the Middle East, six years ago we were not in top 10 in the Middle East. We are aiming to get over 100m visits in 2030, maybe 150. Last year we reached almost 40m visits from Saudi and globally.”

With Saudi’s tourism growth focused at least in part on both domestic and regional visitors, alongside the substantial number of Muslim visitors from across the world performing hajj or umrah to Mecca, observers have argued that criticism from largely Western countries is something Bin Salman can afford to ignore. The argument is reinforced by Saudi’s increasingly central role in regional politics and the country’s importance as an ally to the United States. In his Fox interview, Bin Salman said that normalised relations between the Kingdom and Israel were “getting closer every day”.

Saudi football fans pose with flags before their team’s international friendly with Costa Rica at St James’ Park.
Saudi football fans pose with flags before their team’s international friendly with Costa Rica at St James’ Park. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Bin Salman also shared his recollections on one of the most significant moments in Saudi sporting history, the national football team’s victory over Argentina during last year’s World Cup in Qatar. Bin Salman told Fox he had hoped the Green Falcons would not be humiliated in their encounter with Messi and co, only to emerge 2-1 winners in their group stage match.

“I was with my family, my brothers, their wives, their kids,” he said of watching the game, “We were just wanting to get out of this game with no humiliation and we were surprised.”

The changing face of Saudi Arabia, is the West being bought? On Tuesday 10 October 2023, 8pm-9.15pm BST, join Devika Bhat, Nesrine Malik, Patrick Wintour, Barney Ronay and Safa Al Ahmada for a livestreamed discussion on Saudi Arabia diplomacy tactics. Tickets available here.