The significance of Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Saudi Arabia for the sporting aspirations of the Gulf monarchy is immense.

The significance of Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Saudi Arabia for the sporting aspirations of the Gulf monarchy is immense.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

This collaboration has been praised as a significant moment in history.

On Tuesday, one of the most well-known soccer players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, arrived in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. He was welcomed with a lavish ceremony and children wearing the yellow and blue jerseys of his new club were filled with excitement.

Saudi Arabia, known for its abundant supply of oil, has achieved a victory in attracting the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to join Al Nassr FC on a two-year deal. This is just one of the many efforts the Gulf monarchy has taken in order to achieve its sporting goals, regardless of the expense.

Per reports from Saudi state-owned media, Ronaldo is set to make a staggering $200 million annually with Al Nassr, making him the highest-earning soccer player globally.

Soon after the 37-year-old joined Al Nassr, the team’s Instagram account saw a significant increase of 5.3 million new followers. The club’s official website became inaccessible due to a sudden surge in traffic, exceeding its bandwidth limit. The hashtag #HalaRonaldo, which translates to “Hello, Ronaldo” in Arabic, trended for several days on Twitter in the Middle East.

Experts suggest that his hiring in Saudi Arabia is a component of the country’s larger strategy to expand its sources of income and establish a significant presence in the global sports industry.

The kingdom’s recent actions have been interpreted as an attempt to improve its reputation, which suffered damage following the 2018 murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and the ongoing destructive war in Yemen that began in 2015.

Critics have denounced the country for engaging in “sportswashing,” which refers to using sports to improve one’s image.

According to Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, Saudi Arabia has come to understand in recent years that relying solely on hard power is not enough to become a strong international presence. This recognition is crucial for the country to become a powerful nation on a global scale.

The speaker suggested that investing in soft power is necessary, and pointed to Qatar as an example of its success. He also noted that Saudi Arabia is adopting a similar approach in sports, but with a delay of approximately 25 years.

US actor Morgan Freeman (2nd L), Qatari singer Dana al-Fardan (2nd R), and Qatari YouTuber Ghanim al Muftah (R) perform during the Qatar 2022 World Cup opening ceremony on Sunday.

On Sunday, American actor Morgan Freeman, Qatari musician Dana al-Fardan, and Qatari content creator Ghanim al Muftah performed during the opening ceremony of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images reports on the feelings of some Arabs and Muslims towards the media coverage of the event.

Qatar’s neighboring country has received significant backlash for winning the bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Although the smaller Gulf state has faced similar accusations of using sports to cover up other issues, the tournament has been largely considered a success. It has also helped to showcase a different perspective of the Middle East, with Morocco’s advancement to the semifinals and Saudi Arabia’s victory against eventual World Cup champion Argentina in their first group match.

The countries of the Gulf region are in intense competition to establish themselves as the top destinations for entertainment and sports. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, located near one another, all hold their own Formula One races. However, their rivalry extends beyond the region, as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have also acquired prestigious European soccer teams.

According to Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, Riyadh is trying to catch up with its neighboring countries who have already recognized the value of investing in sports. This is particularly important for Riyadh as its primary source of income, oil, is slowly becoming less popular.

Chadwick informed CNN that there is a continuous effort to develop stronger economies that rely on industries beyond the traditional oil and gas sector.

Al Nassr, the latest team of Ronaldo, has the support of Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a branch of the country’s wealth fund, Public Investment Fund (PIF). PIF has played a crucial role in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy.

@Cristiano is a step in making the kingdom a major player in the sport.

— Connect the World (@CNNConnect) January 4, 2023

Reiche, from Georgetown University, also noted that this is a symbol of connectivity, globalization, and embracing the international community.

According to Omar Al-Ubaydli, director of research at the Bahrain-based Derasat think tank, this move is just one of many notable changes happening in the sports industry. These include hosting the 2019 Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua world heavyweight boxing championship and launching the LIV Golf championship. Al-Ubaydli believes that this move is an important part of a larger effort to restructure the economy.

The country has been working towards both expanding its economy and changing its reputation, despite facing criticism for its human rights violations and treatment of women. Currently, Saudi Arabia is hosting a variety of events, including desert parties and collaborations with famous soccer players. In fact, Argentina’s Lionel Messi signed a profitable sponsorship agreement with the country last year.

At 35 years old, Messi, widely recognized as the world’s top player, concluded the recent World Cup in Qatar with a victory for his team against France. This further solidified his role as an ambassador for the kingdom.

According to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on soccer in the Middle East, the addition of prominent international figures will aid in addressing the monarchy’s long-standing perception of being secretive and extremely conservative. Dorsey shared this perspective with CNN’s Eleni Giokos during an interview on Wednesday.

According to Al-Ubaydli, the kingdom aims to utilize prominent international sports as a means of promoting its openness to the world.

The Saudi Aramco oil refinery at the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields in Saudi Arabia.

Why this current oil boom for Arab countries could potentially be their final one.

In 2021, a three-party consortium, led by PIF, purchased the English Premier League team Newcastle United from Saudi Arabia. This acquisition sparked controversy as Amnesty International and other advocates for human rights expressed concerns that it could overshadow the kingdom’s ongoing human rights violations.

Criticism has already arisen towards Ronaldo’s involvement with Saudi Arabia, as rights organizations are urging him to bring awareness to human rights concerns in the country.

According to Reiche, Saudi Arabia is currently facing a negative perception, particularly after the death of Khashoggi. However, the country’s recent investments in sports and entertainment are not just for the purpose of improving its image, but also for promoting development, social change, and global openness.

According to reports, Saudi Arabia is considering a bid to host the 2030 World Cup alongside Egypt and Greece. However, the country’s tourism ministry stated in November that an official bid has not been submitted yet. Chadwick believes that Ronaldo’s agreement with Al Nassr could potentially strengthen Saudi Arabia’s bid, should they decide to pursue it.

Another way Saudi Arabia may benefit from Ronaldo’s acquisition is that it will be able to improve commercial performance, says Chadwick, especially if this collaboration attracts further international talent.

According to Chadwick, it is crucial to view Ronaldo not solely as a tool for geopolitical agendas. He also holds value in terms of commercial interests and how he is perceived in his role in Saudi Arabia.

Chadwick stated that Ronaldo’s transfer to Saudi Arabia reflects the kingdom’s desire to be recognized as a top contender and respected member of the global soccer community.

The digest

The Foreign Minister of UAE recently had a meeting with Syria’s President Assad in Damascus, indicating a potential improvement in their relationship.

The leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, met with the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, in Damascus on Wednesday, indicating a potential improvement in relations between the two parties. According to the UAE state news agency WAM, the meeting focused on current events in Syria and the broader Middle East region.

  • Abdullah bin Zayed’s recent visit marks his first time returning to Syria since a meeting with Assad in November 2021 that resulted in the restoration of relations. In March 2022, Assad also made his first trip to an Arab nation since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

  • Why it is important: Several individuals who were previously against Assad are now attempting to repair their relationship with his government. In the past week, the defense ministers of Syria and Turkey met in Moscow, marking the most significant meeting between the two sides since the start of the Syrian war. However, this reconciliation between neighboring countries has yet to positively impact the daily lives of Syrian citizens who continue to face Western sanctions.

The President of Turkey, Erdogan, expresses willingness to have a meeting with Assad.

In a speech on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that he would be open to meeting the Syrian leader in order to work towards peace.

  • Erdogan made these remarks in response to the discussions between the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of Turkey and Russia. He announced plans for a meeting between their foreign ministers, followed by a meeting between the two leaders.

  • Why this is important: The meeting signifies a significant change in Turkey’s position on Syria, as they have been a major supporter of political and armed groups fighting against Assad for the past ten years. The Turkish military has a presence along the Syrian border and in northern Syria, where they support opposition forces. President Erdogan has also promised to conduct another military operation in northern Syria to establish a 30-km safe zone free of Kurdish fighters.

The French cultural center in Iran has been closed by the government due to the publication of Khamenei cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.

On Thursday, Iran declared that it had terminated the operations of a French research institute located in Tehran. This action was taken in response to the recent publication of cartoons in French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that ridiculed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Shia Muslim clerics.

  • Iran’s government summoned the French ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday to express their disapproval of satirical cartoons released by Charlie Hebdo. The magazine published over 30 cartoons mocking Iran’s supreme leader as a means of showing solidarity with the Iranian citizens who have been protesting against the policies and leadership of the Islamic Republic.

  • The reason for concern: The relationship between France and Iran has significantly worsened due to protests that began in Iran at the end of last year. France has openly expressed support for the protests and condemned Iran’s actions in response. On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna criticized Iran’s lack of press freedom and independent judicial system, stating that “press freedom does exist, unlike the situation in Iran where it is supervised by a judge in an independent judiciary – something that Iran is not familiar with.”

Around the region

Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performing onstage at the Olympia, in Paris on November 14, 1967.

The prestigious impact of renowned Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum resurfaced this year as Rolling Stone magazine included her in their list of the “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Umm Kulthum was ranked 61st on the list, making her the only Arab artist to be included. According to the magazine, she stands out as there is no comparable singer in the Western world.

Umm Kulthum, who was born in a small village located northeast of Cairo, the capital of Egypt, became incredibly famous and was seen as a symbol of the pan-Arab world, according to the music magazine.

The article praised her powerful contralto voice, which could break gender stereotypes with its deep tones. It also highlighted her ability to convey a wide range of emotions in intricate songs that could go on for an hour, as she captivated audiences like an impassioned preacher.

Known as the “queen of Arab singing,” her repertoire consisted of traditional Arabic poetry and popular songs that continue to be beloved by newer audiences. Her most well-known works include “Inta Uumri” (you are my life), “Alf Leila Weileila” (a thousand and one nights), “Amal Hayati” (hope of my life), and “Daret al-Ayyam” (the days have come around). Several of her songs have been given a modern twist with remixed beats, making their way into Middle Eastern clubs.

The vocalist’s unmatched talent can still be heard in traditional coffee shops and neighborhoods of Old Cairo and other areas throughout the Arab world.

The passing of Umm Kulthum in 1975 resulted in a large gathering of mourners on the streets of Cairo.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

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Women athletes aim their air rifles while competing in a local shooting championship in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on January 3.