The rejection from the global superstar is a public relations disaster for the Kingdom which is trying to find its feet as it diversifies its economy.

Global footballing icon Cristiano Ronaldo has rejected a multi-million-dollar opportunity to become the face of Saudi Tourism, according to the United Kingdom’s Telegraphdelivering a devastating blow to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s global image and ultimately his de-facto rule.

Ronaldo was reportedly offered $6 million per year in exchange for his image being used on Saudi Tourism promotional material and for visiting the country. As arguably the highest profile sports celebrity on the planet, Ronaldo’s signature would’ve been a huge public relations coup for the Kingdom. 

His rejection of the deal, however, delivers equally large consequences, all of which are negative for the Saudi crown prince, who will likely interpret this piece of bad news as nothing shy of an existential crisis.

MBS's future rule and the legitimacy of the monarchy is inextricably tied to his effort to transform the country's sputtering oil dependent economy by developing and diversifying non-oil industries, including tourism, recreation, infrastructure, healthcare and education, otherwise known strategically as "Vision 2030."

A component of this strategy is to whitewash the Kingdom’s atrocious human rights, with the aim of giving the country a more user-friendly face, particularly for Western audiences, by hosting international sports events and tying itself to the star power of globally recognised athletes and sports teams, a strategy sneered by human right activists as "sportswashing."

The goal is to sell the appearance of a more progressive nation, while doing nothing to address its widespread human rights abuses, including jailing and execution of critics, journalists, and women’s rights advocates, alongside its mistreatment of racial, cultural and sexual minorities. Saudi Arabia’s bid to host an expanded 2020 FIFA World Cup failed in part over concerns towards its repressive policies.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States even partnered with a US based lobbying firm to establish meetings and ties with the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB) and Major League Soccer (MLS), as part of a $650 million investment in international and local sports.

When the Kingdom hosted an all-female WWE wrestling fixture in 2019, Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Middle East and Africa, described the event as the quintessential definition of sportswashing.

“In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are infamous for the oppression of women’s rights and ethnic and racial minority rights. What better way to attempt to change that image than an all-women’s wrestling match?” said Nassif to the New York Times.

What’s clear, however, is the overwhelming majority of the international community isn’t buying what MBS is selling. The hosting of a wrestling match, PGA golf tournament or a UEFA Champions League football match does nothing to conceal the fact that he likely personally ordered the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen, which has now led to the deaths of a quarter of a million people, according to the United Nations Humanitarian Office.

“Instead of using sports to rehabilitate its global image, it would be cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world,” observes Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s director of Global Initiatives.

Ronaldo's rejection of the multi-million-dollar offer can only be interpreted as an indication that Saudi Arabia’s current strategy to rehabilitate its global reputation isn’t working, and it’s likely the Portuguese footballing superstar has not only set a landmark precedent but also a potential public relations landmine for other international suitors. 

To accept money where others have rejected it on moral grounds is to invite irreparable damage and scrutiny to one’s personal brand. That said, Saudi Tourism is said to be also courting 6-time FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi. We now wait and see.

For MBS, however, Ronaldo’s rejection of the deal couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, with the Saudi economy suffering on two simultaneous fronts: the Covid-19 pandemic and low oil prices, causing unemployment to remain stubbornly high at 12 percent, with activity in retail, transportation and construction at a low.

MBS had hoped that start-ups and small business would generate 35 percent of the Kingdom’s economic output by 2030, but a recent report by Wamda found that two-thirds of all small to midsized businesses have been negatively affected by the pandemic, with nearly one in five suspending operations.

The pandemic has hit the tourism sector especially hard. Whereas “Vision 2030” had set a target of 1.5 million visitors per year by 2030, a mere 250,000 foreigners visited the country last year, along with the suspension of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Like all governments, however, Saudi Arabia is looking ahead to a post-Covid world and resumption in international travel, and seeking a major marketing win to reignite its tourism, retail and construction sectors. 

Ronaldo's rejection of Saudi Tourism's offer delivers a serious blow to this objective.

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