Saudi Arabia, sportswashing, Lionel Messi, human rights abuses
Lionel Messi gestures to supporters as he warm up ahead of the 'Finalissima' International friendly football match between Italy and Argentina at Wembley Stadium in London on June 1, 2022. Photo: Adrian DENNIS / AFP

Messi Is Accused of Being the Face of a Blood-Soaked Regime

“Now when people think about Saudi... they'll forget about my sister being tortured by the exact man that Messi is representing.”
Rimal Farrukh
Islamabad, PK

Lionel Messi’s position as a football god is undisputed. The 34-year-old is widely regarded as one of the best football players of all time and is the seven-time recipient of the prestigious Ballon d'Or award.

With a massive global fanbase, the athlete has 338 million followers on Instagram. Off the field, the superstar is known for his philanthropy for children’s healthcare through his foundation and his work with UNICEF


And now he’s the posterboy for one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. 

Messi has recently been named as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia. The state is known for its countless human rights abuses including its catastrophic war in Yemen, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and its brutal suppression of women, minorities, activists and reformers. The kingdom’s agreement with one of the most recognisable men on the planet is a watershed moment in its efforts to launder its public image.

In May, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Tourism, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, tweeted the announcement during the Argentine footballer’s visit to the port city of Jeddah. His tweet said, “It pleases us to announce #MessiAmbassador for tourism in Saudi.” Shortly after, Messi shared a picture of himself lounging on a boat with a sunset view. The Instagram post was captioned “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi” and was sponsored by Visit Saudi – an offshoot of the Saudi tourism authority. 

A few days later, he posted another paid post with the caption #VisitSaudi. He was at Al-Balad, the UNESCO world heritage site in Jeddah. 

“It is a distinguished and unique step for Messi to become an ambassador for Saudi tourism due to the influence the player has, which will reflect positively on Jeddah’s position as a tourist destination,” retired Saudi football champion Sami Al Jaber tweeted after the announcement. 


However, not everyone welcomes Messi’s foray into Saudi tourism.

Journalists, human rights organisations and activists have criticised the partnership, branding the development as a blatant example of “sportswashing.” 

Sportswashing, a term popularised by Amnesty International, refers to the deliberate use of sports events, branding and influence by governments and nations to airbrush bleak human rights records and reputations. 

For Lina Alhathloul, Messi’s deal with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s blood-soaked regime is inexcusable.

She is the sister of celebrated activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Loujain Alhathloul, who famously campaigned for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. In 2018, Loujain was imprisoned in a crackdown against feminist activists only weeks before the country finally allowed women to drive.

Saudi Arabia, sportswashing, Lionel Messi, human rights abuses

This undated handout picture released on the Facebook page of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul shows her posing for the camera. FACEBOOK / AFP

“I think that Messi is enabling, empowering and emboldening a dictator. He’s giving credibility or basically white-washing the abuses,” Lina told VICE World News. “He is acting like a curtain for what is happening in the country. He is hiding the repression of the people, the torture, the massacres, the killings.”

Investigative journalist Karim Zidan said Saudi Arabia’s decision to enlist Messi as its tourism ambassador underscores the continued evolution of the kingdom’s sportswashing strategy.


“Not only is Saudi purchasing football teams and hosting prestigious sports events, they are now enticing individual athletes and their fanbases,” Zidan told VICE World News. “Messi has hundreds of millions of followers on instagram, meaning that a single post on his social media is worth far more than the best ad agency in the business.” 

VICE World News did not immediately receive a response from Messi or his team despite several attempts to contact them through the Fundación Leo Messi, his football club Paris-Saint Germain and UNICEF, where he is a goodwill ambassador

The exact details or scope of the arrangement between the Saudi government and Messi is also unknown. VICE World News contacted the Saudi’s Ministry of Tourism and the Saudi Tourism Authority but did not receive a response.

With an estimated net worth of at least $400 million, the footballer outranked Lebron James as the world’s highest-paid athlete of 2022, raking in annual earnings of a whopping $130 million from May of 2021 to May of this year. His salary at Qatar-owned Paris-Saint Germain, which has also been accused of being a sportswashing enterprise, is estimated at $75 million, while his off-field earnings in the form of endorsements account for $55 million

Messi’s appointment as a tourism ambassador while playing for Paris-Saint Germain could potentially serve as a means of enhancing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In January 2021, the neighbours resumed ties after nearly four years after Saudi Arabia severed all trade and diplomatic relations with Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had led the blockade accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, sportswashing, Lionel Messi, human rights abuses

Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki (C) and Khalid bin Sultan al-Faisal, Chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, are pictured on stage during a press conference to announce the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as part of the 2021 F1 calendar, in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on November 5, 2020. Photo: AMER HILABI / AFP

According to a Grant Liberty report released last year, Saudi Arabia has increasingly invested in international sporting initiatives amounting to at least $1.5 billion. This figure is considered to be an underestimation as it does not account for undisclosed deals such as those initiated by members of the royal family.

The country recently bankrolled the multi-million dollar LIV Golf tournament which started its opening event near London on June 9. Last year, a group led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund acquired premier league football club Newcastle for a reported $409 million. 

The kingdom inked a $650 million deal for a Formula One motor racing event. It also spent $500 million for a 10-year deal with World Wrestling Entertainment in 2014. In 2017, the country hosted the King Salman World Chess Championship with a $2 million prize.

According to Simon Anholt, independent policy advisor and creator of the Good Country Index, Saudi Arabia’s heavy purchasing power has gravitated it towards sports. 

“Positive associations with sport are quite easy to buy. If you've got a lot of money, it's much easier to get yourself associated with a sporting brand, sporting events and sporting individuals. Because it's all for sale, it’s a commercial enterprise,” Anholt told VICE World News.  

Human rights organisations believe that the country’s sports initiatives are a means of peddling an international reputation of a business-oriented and forward-thinking Saudi Arabia.


In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) launched the kingdom’s “Vision 2030” plan, a strategy meant to diversify the wealthy nation’s economy by minimising its dependence on oil and boosting investment into its private sector. The scheme has listed the creation of a professional sports industry as one of its goals

The vision which was projected as a transformative milestone in opening up the Kingdom from social and cultural isolation has done little to detract from the country's human rights abuses

A declassified U.S intelligence report concluded that MBS orchestrated the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Saudi Arabia’s devastating intervention war in Yemen has killed over 100,000 people including at least 12,000 civilians. Analysts say that at least two-thirds of these deaths are attributed to Saudi Arabian-led airstrikes.

Over 300 prisoners of conscience have been documented since MBS came into power. Some have been executed or ‘mysteriously’ killed in custody, while others still remain missing or incommunicado. Prisoners have reportedly suffered from beatings and torture, psychological cruelty, and arbitrary arrests.

Saudi Arabia, sportswashing, Lionel Messi, human rights abuses

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman attends the opening ceremony of the G20 Summit at the International Expo Center in Hangzhou on September 4, 2016. Photo: Nicolas ASFOURI / POOL / AFP

During her detainment, Lina’s sister Loujain was subjected to torture including electrocution, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, threats of sexual assault, prolonged solitary confinement and enforced disappearance. Although Loujain was released from prison last year, her freedoms are limited. She currently remains under probation, under a travel ban, with conditions prohibiting her from expressing herself freely. 


The ordeal has taken a momentous toll on Loujain’s entire family. Her parents remain in Saudi Arabia also under a travel ban.

“We live in constant fear. We are in front of a regime that has money, power, influence. I have to call my parents on a daily basis to make sure that they haven't been arrested and that they are safe,” said Lina. 

In February last year Lina along with other family members of prisoners of conscience signed a letter addressed to Messi urging him to decline a €6 million ($6.2 million) offer from Visit Saudi made to him and Cristiano Ronaldo to become tourism representatives for the country. Although Ronaldo reportedly stepped away from the offer, Lina is gravely disappointed to see Messi partner up with the state. 

Areej al-Sadhan is another signatory of the letter. She is the sister of imprisoned Red Crescent aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who was forcibly disappeared and arrested in 2018 for tweeting his opinions about the country’s economy under an anonymous satire account. 

Since his arrest, Areej and her family have been forced to rely on smuggled reports to learn about her brother’s condition. 

“He was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, sleep deprivation, suspension where they would hang him from his feet, verbal and phsyical humiliation and sexual harassment,” said Areej.

“And the worst part of it is that they also broke his hand and finger nails deliberately, saying this is the hand you tweet with. They almost killed him.” 

In April last year, an-anti terrorism court sentenced Abdulrahman to 20 years of imprisonment and 20 years of a travel ban. He will be 77 when he is released from all conditions of his sentence. 

For family members like Areej and Lina, Messi’s decision to align himself with Saudi Arabian tourism means that he is now directly representing MBS and his regime. 

“Now when people think about Saudi, they will think about Messi. They'll think about sports, they'll think about fun stuff and they'll forget about my sister being tortured by the exact man that Messi is representing,” Lina said. 

Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.