Saudi Arabia is being extra cautious, leaving absolutely nothing to chance while attempting to give its global image a makeover.
“Great memory spending a sensational day exploring Diriyah with my family, the birthplace of the Saudi state and home to 300 years of history. #visitsaudi #Diriyah @visitdiryah”
Posted five weeks ago, this Instagram post from renowned footballer Lionel Messi on Saudi Arabia, marked as a paid partnership with Visit Saudi, has garnered around 17 million likes and more than 78,000 comments.
Messi has a massive following of 472 million Instagram users and has been providing occasional glimpses into his travels to Saudi Arabia, which date back to May 2022.
These posts are part of the contractual obligations outlined in his partnership with Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority, according to a new report in the New York Times — a deal that could earn him a staggering $25 million over three years.
What Does Messi’s Contract Specify
According to the Times, the contract requires Messi to serve as an ambassador for Saudi Arabia’s flourishing tourism industry, sharing his visits and experiences on his social media platforms.
Specifying obligations and corresponding payments, the contract entitles Messi to a payment of approximately $2 million for at least one annual family vacation lasting five days or two vacations of three days each. The Saudi government covers travel expenses and provides five-star accommodations for Messi, along with up to 20 family members and friends.
An additional $2 million for promoting Saudi Arabia on Messi’s social media accounts, requiring 10 dedicated posts per year specifically dedicated to promoting the kingdom. This is separate from the promotion of his personal vacations to Saudi Arabia.
Approximately $2 million more for participation in an annual tourism campaign. Messi and the Saudi authority collaborated on the first campaign, a meticulously produced video set in the desert, which was released in November.
Another $2 million designated for charitable work and public appearances.
One key clause, according to the Times: Messi cannot say anything that might “tarnish” Saudi Arabia.
Up until now, the details of Messi’s contract with the tourism authority had been kept confidential. It remains unclear if the contract reviewed by The New York Times is the current version of the agreement.
The document, provided by an anonymous source familiar with the Messi-Saudi arrangement, is dated January 1, 2021, and bears the signatures of Messi and his brother Rodrigo, who serves as his business manager. However, it doesn’t have signatures of Saudi officials.
The Sports Angle in Saudi Tourism Promotion
Saudi Arabia plans to invest $1 trillion in the tourism sector over the next 10 years.
“Today, Saudi Arabia is the largest investing destination in the tourism sector,” Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, told Skift in an interview last year.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in acquiring significant stakes in various professional sports ventures. This includes purchasing a Premier League soccer team, hosting championship boxing matches, securing a place on the Formula 1 auto racing calendar, and a large investment in professional golf.
The country has struggled to win over tourists due to certain societal limitations, including a strict no-drinking policy and severe restrictions for women, as well as allegations of human rights abuses.
American golfer Jack Nicklaus had said he turned down $100 million to be the face of Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series.
Furthermore, the kingdom has offered substantial financial incentives to attract renowned football players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to participate in their domestic league.
While Messi declined a similar offer and chose to join Inter Miami of Major League Soccer in the United States, there is no indication that this decision has negatively affected his relationship with the Saudis.
After Messi’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia last month, his French club suspended him for an unauthorized absence from training. Messi apologized to his team and its supporters, explaining that the trip was unavoidable, stating, “I couldn’t cancel it.”
On October 7, last year, Messi posted an Instagram endorsement, in which he wrote, “If you are planning to attend the World Cup and desire an authentic Arabian experience, make sure not to miss out on everything Saudi has to offer!”
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Photo credit: Lionel Messi's tourism promotion deal with Saudi Arabia could potentially earn him a staggering $25 million over three years. Saudi Tourism Authority