New Year policy rethink?  Saudi reshuffle moves Al-Sheikh from sports to entertainment

By Paul Nicholson

January 2 – Saudi Arabia’s controversial Turki Al-Sheikh who as president of the General Sports Authority has involved himself in the international football market and its politics, has had his ministerial position re-organised with a move to chairman of the Entertainment Authority.

Al-Sheikh will be replaced as sports minister by Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal.

What this means for the Saudi involvement in the football business remains to be seen. The Saudis have shown aggressive football ambition with Al-Sheikh very much in the vanguard of manoeuvres that have been primarily geo-politically focussed on destabilising Qatar.

The Saudis expressed ambition for the presidency of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) before throwing their weight behind a closely aligned UAE candidate; they attempted to establish a new sub-regional confederation that excluded Qatar (now disbanded); and they are seen as commercially endangering the value of broadcast sports rights and football in particular with their refusal to outlaw the Saudi-based pirate broadcaster beoutQ that has been stealing live rights.

On top of this it is Saudi money that is underpinning the proposed overhaul of the international football calendar which is primarily predicated on the promise of $25 billion for the commercial rights to a revamped Club World Cup and global Nations League – a proposal that has motivated FIFA’s executive into action for monetary rather than sporting reasons and which has raised questions over the involvement of Italian lawyer Mario Gallavotti who has a number of Saudi clients in his legal business but who also heads not only the administration of both of FIFA’s ethics bodies but also that of the Audit and Compliance Committee.

Al-Sheikh’s sideways shift is unlikely to derail Saudi activity but it may bring less of an antagonistic edge to their football politicking. He had quickly risen in Saudi Arabia to become one of the region’s new power brokers, with the full backing of the royal house. Under Al-Sheikh’s ministry the Saudi league has received increased financial backing, allowing local clubs to clear debt (mainly owed to unpaid players) and reinvest in their squads. Outside the country he was less popular having been involved in a failed battle for control of Al-Ahly, one of Egypt’s most prominent and storied clubs. He later invested in Al Assiouty Sport and renamed the club Pyramids FC before pulling his money.

His switch to the Entertainment Authority may be seen as a relief in some football circles though looks unlikely to bring any relief for rights holders in their battle with pirate channel beoutQ.

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