Saudi Arabia’s Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said Thursday his government is encouraging private sector bids for the purchase of English Premier League soccer teams Manchester United and Liverpool.
As the owners of both clubs are seeking potential buyers, Al Faisal said Riyadh would “definitely support” Saudi private sector bids for either of the clubs.
According to the Manchester Evening News, potential buyers of Manchester United include Amancio Ortega, the Spanish billionaire owner of Zara who has reportedly informed senior executives in the club of his interest.
British tabloid Daily Star said in an unsourced report that tech giant Apple was also exploring the possibility of purchasing Manchester United. The company has been pushing into sports content lately, but is not known to have shown interest in owning a club until now.
Manchester United is currently owned by the American Jewish Glazer family, while Liverpool is owned by Fenway Sports Group, which also owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox.
“There is a lot of interest and appetite and passion about [soccer],” the Saudi minister said in an interview with BBC Sport broadcast Thursday.
“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?” he said.
The move would likely draw criticism from UK soccer fans, who have pointed to Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record in the past.
There was outcry when Newcastle United was sold to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund last year. During one game, Newcastle fans brought with them a banner depicting a man dressed in Saudi garb holding a bloody machete next to a business executive standing over a bag of money dripping with blood. The banner also included a checklist listing “terrorism,” “beheadings,” and “murder” along with other crimes alleged to have been carried out by Saudi Arabia.
Like Qatar, which is currently hosting the FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia has been accused of using sports to improve the country’s international reputation and hide criticism over certain policies, primarily women’s rights abuses, anti-LGBTQ+ laws and restrictions on free speech.
Addressing the criticism, the Saudi prince suggested sports were actually means for social change in the Muslim country.
“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,” he said.
The minister also said he hoped that Portuguese professional soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently left Manchester United, would someday join a Saudi club.
“Anything is possible, I would love to see Ronaldo play in the Saudi league,” Al Faisel told the BBC.
“It would benefit the league, the sports ecosystem 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,” he added.
Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team — ranked a lowly 51st in the world — made history at the World Cup in Qatar on Tuesday when it beat Argentina 2-1. The game was seen as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.
Associated Press contributed to this report.