"Because people see Messi going to Saudi Arabia, they don’t think of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi..."
In January 2021, it was reported that Saudi Arabia had turned to the world of football as they searched for a high-profile figure to promote their tourism industry.
They had gone straight to the very top, tabling lucrative offers to both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In exchange for making visits to the kingdom and allowing their faces to appear on promotional material for the soon-to-be-launched Visit Saudi campaign, the pair would be paid around £5m each.
Ronaldo turned down the offer. Messi, meanwhile, did not, his representatives declining to comment.
Sensing that Messi was seriously contemplating accepting the offer, an open letter composed by the family members of Saudi prisoners of conscience was sent to him the next month, pleading for him to reject Saudi’s deal.
Organised by human rights advocacy body, Grant Liberty, the letter concluded: “Lionel Messi you are hero to millions – please use that status for good. Stand up for human rights and say no to the butchers of Jamal Khashoggi and the brutalisers of peaceful campaigners in Saudi Arabia.”
In May came the confirmation that Messi had ignored those pleas.
What is Vision 2030?
Saudi Vision 2030 is a strategic framework which seeks to diversify Saudi's economy and promote a more secular, progressive image of the kingdom internationally. Created by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, opening the kingdom up for tourism was a key feature of the plan.
On his Instagram, two photos were shared with his 328-million-strong following, both showing him taking in a Red Sea sunset from the deck of a yacht, close to the Saudi port city of Jeddah. The post, which has since attracted over 7 million likes, had been marked as a paid partnership with Visit Saudi.
"When you represent Saudi Tourism, you represent the regime,” Lina al-Hathloul tells JOE. "Tourism is directly linked to the 2030 vision set out by the Crown Prince, so Messi is effectively working for them. It’s very frustrating."
Al-Hathloul contributed to the open letter sent to Messi last year. She is the sister of the prominent women's rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, whose story has made headlines internationally.
Loujain was a key figure in the campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia. After being arrested a number of times, she was detained along with several other female activists in 2018, weeks before the ban was lifted. She was held incommunicado for three months, having no contact with her family or legal representatives.
"When she first called she said she was in a hotel, but she later called it a torture facility," al-Hathloul adds. "She was tortured, then brought back to an official prison.”
Saudi officials denied Loujain had been mistreated. She remained in prison for almost three years without charge before eventually being sentenced in December 2020. Although released the following February, she remains under probation.
Loujain is at home !!!!!!
تم الافراج عن لجين pic.twitter.com/fqug9VK6Mj
— Lina Alhathloul لينا الهذلول (@LinaAlhathloul) February 10, 2021
"She was released but she isn’t free," al-Hathloul adds. "She’s still on a travel ban, as are my family. They live in constant fear of potential arrest.
"She cannot continue her activism. If she posts something, if she says anything, it can be considered as one of the crimes she has been accused of. She’s isolated. It’s really difficult for her - even after her release.”
Al-Hathloul stresses that her sister’s case is just one example in a country which, for all the talk of reform which came with Bin Salman's appointment as Crown Prince in 2017, is still widely condemned for its human rights violations.
Activists, LGBTQ+ people and intellectuals continue to be suppressed and, in some cases, jailed. The death penalty is still in use, with 81 people executed in a single day only two months ago. On top of this, there is the lingering controversy which surrounds the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a war raging on in neighbouring Yemen which has led to a humanitarian catastrophe.
It’s because of this, al-Hathloul explains, that Messi’s involvement with Saudi is so problematic.
“Maybe, because people see Messi going to Saudi Arabia, they don’t think of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” she says.
“It’s all about image, which is why they want Messi. It is exactly what we call sportswashing. People see him going there and assume Saudi is open and evolving. Then, the regime can double down on its repression.
"It’s very dangerous for us. It enables the violations - not only whitewashes - but enables them. It empowers a repressive government.”
Messi’s ambassadorial deal with Saudi tourism raises uncomfortable questions. Already the face of world football’s biggest sportswashing project, it’s hard to square his decision to embark on this role with the many charitable projects he has aligned himself with throughout his career.
His foundation was launched when he was barely out of his teens. For over a decade he has been an ambassador for UNICEF. This month - somewhat jarringly, given it came immediately after his Saudi Tourism post - he urged his Instagram followers to pledge their support to a UN refugee campaign.
The logical conclusion - perhaps the only conclusion - is that Messi has simply been swayed by the riches on offer. Money shouldn’t be the deal-breaker for a man who topped the Forbes' rich list for athletes this year, but he wouldn't be the first to have his moral compass set off course by the chance to earn even more of it.
"Messi is basically someone who appears to have values and wants to do good," says al-Hathloul. "But he also deals with Saudi. These double standards become confusing for people.
"They might now think that [because he cares about refugees and works with UNICEF] Saudi values those same things, when that isn’t true."
Jeddah has played host to a Formula 1 race this year. It is expected to stage the eagerly anticipated rematch between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk later this year. For any controversy Messi’s visit to Jeddah may have caused, one thing is certain: Saudi's regime understands the value of using sport as a tool for cleansing its image on the international stage. Their determination to continue doing so is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.