Lionel Messi, Saudi Arabia and a contract to promote the kingdom

As the sun set over a seemingly endless expanse of open sea, Lionel Messi took a seat at the edge of a boat, stretched out a leg and posed for the photograph that would announce the beginning of his public partnership with Saudi Arabia.

The photo has been shared with Messi’s over 400 million followers on Instagram on 9 May 2022, was accompanied by a bilingual caption that read: “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi.” Hours earlier, he had been welcomed to the kingdom by Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister, who had boasted on Twitter that while it was Messi’s first visit to the country, “it won’t be the last.”

Messi, perhaps considered the world’s greatest soccer player, began to cash in on the new partnership: his photo shoot in the Red Sea probably earned him about $2 million, the first step in fulfilling his deal with the kingdom, which is worth millions more .

The details of Messi’s role as a well-compensated pitchman for Saudi Arabia are contained in a previously unpublished version of his contract with the tourism authority, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

The contract shows Messi could receive as much as 22.5 million euros, about $25 million, over three years for little actual work: a few commercial appearances, a handful of social media posts and some vacations to the kingdom paid for all expenses, with his family and children. He is expected to share photos of these trips – tagged with a Saudi-approved hashtag – with his large online following.

But the document also contains a condition important to Saudi officials: Messi cannot say anything that could “tarnish” Saudi Arabia, a country that has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record.

These details of the arrangement with Messi, who won the World Cup with Argentina in December, provide an inside look at the oil-rich kingdom’s use of its wealth to recruit marquee athletes in its efforts to polish its global image. Saudi Arabia’s critics deride the strategy as sports laundering: using sports and sports figures to whitewash the country’s human rights record, its treatment of women, its killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other authoritarian acts.

In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions making big bets in professional sports: the purchase of a Premier League soccer team. Championship boxing matches. A stop on the Formula 1 car racing schedule. And most recently a cheeky foray into professional golf.

The kingdom has offered hundreds of millions of dollars to lure Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and dozens of other soccer stars to play in the country’s domestic league. Messi recently turned down a similar offer, opting instead to join Inter Miami of Major League Soccer in the United States. But there is so far no sign that the decision has affected his relationship with the Saudis. In fact, he has seemed eager to stay in their good graces.

In February 2021, just weeks after signing his contract, Messi wrote a letter to Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister apologizing for not being able to make a planned visit. In the previously unreported letter, Messi addressed Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khateeb as “Your Excellency” and expressed, in unusually flowery prose, his “deepest regret” for his absence. Messi was then playing for FC Barcelona and he wrote that as a “sportsman” he had commitments that were impossible to skip: a league match against Real Betis followed by a match in the Spanish Cup.

The Saudis got their visit eventually. The latest came last month, a year after his first Saudi tourism post on Instagram, when Messi took a quick mid-season break to the kingdom – which, like all his previous visits, would have earned him a seven-figure payday under the terms of his Saudi tourism contract.

By then, Messi had left Barcelona and was playing for French team Paris St.-Germain. When he returned from his Saudi sojourn, the French club suspended him for what it deemed an unauthorized absence from training. Messi apologized to his team and its fans with an explanation that suggested the trip was not optional: “I couldn’t cancel it.”

Until now, the details of Messi’s contract with the tourism authority have been a closely guarded secret. It is not clear whether the contract reviewed by The Times is the current version of the agreement. It was shared by a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement between Messi and the Saudis on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to reveal details of the deal. The document, dated January 1, 2021, was signed by Messi and his brother Rodrigo, who acts as his business manager, but it is not signed by Saudi officials.

The terms outlined in the document are consistent with the way Messi has used his social media to promote the kingdom and also with the promotional visits he has made to the country.

The contract is specific about Messi’s obligations and about the money to be paid to fulfill each one:

  • About $2 million, almost 1.8 million euros, for at least one family vacation a year lasting five days, or alternating two annual vacations of three days each. Travel expenses and five-star accommodation were to be paid by the Saudi government for Messi and up to 20 family members and friends.

  • Another $2 million to promote Saudi Arabia on his social media accounts 10 times a year, separate from the promotion of his vacations to the kingdom.

  • About $2 million more to participate in an annual tourism campaign. (He and the Saudi authority shared the first campaign, a detailed desert video shot, in November.)

  • Another $2 million for charity work and appearances.

Few people were willing to discuss the terms of Messi’s deal. Pablo Negre Abello, who is responsible for Messi’s commercial deals, cited confidentiality clauses written into all of Messi’s contracts. Abello suggested that a Times reporter contact the tourism authority. Officials there did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Rayco García Cabrera, a former footballer who brokered the meeting between Messi’s management and Saudi officials, including the tourism minister, said the deal was worth “a small amount” compared to the huge salaries the country pays stars such as Ronaldo and Benzema. But, Garcia said, Messi agreed to be the tourism spokesperson because “he believes in Saudi and the Saudi vision.”

“I was in the middle of this,” García added, “and I was so surprised when Messi didn’t ask for a big amount.” García said he did not know the exact terms of the agreement.

A review of Messi’s social media posts and travels shows that he appears to be fulfilling the terms of his contract. His Instagram account – with 470 million followers, it is one of the largest on the platform – has shown an ordinary current of Saudi messages and photographs. On his visit in May, Messi was photographed with his wife and children taking part in a series of family activities: petting horses with his sons, playing games in an arcade and sitting with an artisan while holding a woven hat.

In 2021, amid news reports linking Messi and Saudi Arabia, family members of Saudi dissidents urged the player to reject the endorsement offer, which he eventually accepted. IN an open letterthey implored him, writing: “The Saudi regime wants to use you to whitewash its reputation.”

Saudi officials have denied this accusation. Messi, meanwhile, has not mentioned it. Instead, he has expressed wonder at the natural beauty found in Saudi Arabia.

One of Messi’s latest posts is a photo of the kingdom’s date palm groves and other natural attractions. The caption reads: “Who thought Saudi has so much green?

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