Saudi Arabia’s sports minister says its government would “definitely support” any private sector bids to buy Manchester United and Liverpool and expressed hope that Cristiano Ronaldo comes to play in its domestic league.
The Glazer family, United’s owners, announced this week that they were exploring a potential sale barely a fortnight after their Liverpool counterparts, Fenway Sports Group, put the Merseyside club on the market.
Newcastle United already have Saudi Arabian owners after a takeover of the Tyneside club backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund was completed amid widespread controversy in October last year.
But now Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, the sports minister of Saudi Arabia, has revealed that its country’s private investors would receive the full backing of the government if they opt to move for United and Liverpool, the two most successful clubs in English football history.
“From the private sector, I can't speak on their behalf, but there is a lot of interest and appetite and there's a lot of passion about football,” he told the BBC. “It's the most-watched league in Saudi and the region and you have a lot of fans of the Premier League. We will definitely support it if any [Saudi] private sector comes in, because we know that's going to reflect positively on sports within the kingdom. But if there's an investor willing to do so and the numbers add up, why not?"
Prince Abdulaziz reiterated his stance in a separate interview with Sky News when asked if he would like to see United and Liverpool fall under Saudi ownership.
“I hope so - if there are investors and the numbers add up, and it makes a good business," he said. "Then the private sector could come in, or companies could come in, from the kingdom. The Premier League is the best league in the world. Everyone's watching the Premier League. It's the most watched league and there are diehard fans of these teams in the kingdom. So it would be a benefit for everyone.”
Prince Abdulaziz also expressed hope that Ronaldo would sign for a Saudi Pro League club after leaving United this week in the wake of his incendiary interview with Piers Morgan. Ronaldo rejected a £233 million two-year contract offer from Al Hilal in the summer but the Saudi club are believed to be lining up a fresh move for the 37-year-old now he has become a free agent.
“Anything is possible, I would love to see Ronaldo play in the Saudi league," said Prince Abdulaziz. "It would benefit the league, the sports eco-system in Saudi and it will inspire the youth for the future. He's a role model to a lot of kids and has a big fanbase in Saudi.
"Who wouldn't want him to play in their league? He's a role model to a lot of young players - him and Messi. I don't have any details about any of the reports that have been coming out. But you know, what I can say is that we have Messi as an ambassador for tourism in the kingdom with the ministry of tourism - and that's benefited a lot.
“In terms of tourism for the kingdom, if they can, I'd love to see them both play in the Saudi league, and, you know, if top players come into the Saudi league and play that will reinforce the programmes that we're doing.”
Ronaldo became the first player in history to score in five World Cups on Thursday when Portugal beat Ghana 3-2. Qatar’s hosting of the tournament has been mired in scandal and controversy but Prince Abdulaziz expressed hope that the World Cup would one day return to the Middle East and admitted he would be keen to see it held in Saudi Arabia.
'I think Saudi Arabia will always be criticised'
The state is in the running to host the women's and men's Asian Cup in 2026 and 2027 respectively and, if the bids are successful, he believes it will “for sure” increase the chance of Saudi bidding for the World Cup.
"Why not? Who wouldn't want to host the World Cup?" he said. "We host a lot of events in the region. Any country in the world would love to host the World Cup. It's an amazing tournament and it's good for every country to host such an event.
"We need to uplift some of our venues. We have a lot of stadiums that meet the requirement that we need, but hosting such an event is not just about the stadiums, it's about the infrastructure, the people, about preparing everyone for such an event And making sure that when you're ready to host this competition the whole nation is behind that."
Saudi have stood accused of sport washing - an attempt to use sport to promote a positive image of a country with an appalling human rights record - through their investment in and hosting of major sporting events, including the breakaway golf series LIV Golf, Formula One races and world title boxing matches. Prince Abdulaziz said Saudi will “always be criticised”.
"We were criticised in Saudi before we hosted such events, that we don't host these events, and now that we are now, we're criticised for hosting them," he said.
"We look at the facts - the numbers don't lie - when you look at participation in boxing, from six gyms in 2018 to 57 gyms today. A 300 per cent participation increase, 60 per cent are women, which was a shock for us. When you see appetite from the youth, men and women, they learned from it. So, at the end of the day if it's making the country better and fixing a lot of the social issues we have in terms of participation then that's a benefit for us and that's what we look at.
"I think we will always be criticised but we have to look at what's best for our country and our people, and what is actually developing our youth towards the future."