Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has acquired a minority stake in the Professional Fighters League (PFL), the two entities said Wednesday, the latest example of the kingdom’s sports investment push.
It is the first deal sealed by SRJ Sports Investments, a new company unveiled earlier this month by the Saudi fund known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF), that aims to draw “major global events” to Saudi Arabia.
Sports have been a major component of the oil-rich Gulf kingdom’s effort to rebrand as a global business and tourism destination under the Vision 2030 reform agenda pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the PIF chairman.
“Today marks a new milestone for SRJ as we make our inaugural investment,” SRJ chairman Bander Bin Mogren said in a statement.
“This investment aims to nurture the local and regional talent pool in martial arts, promote gender equality in sport, and bring new opportunities directly to Saudi Arabia and the wider MENA region.”
Combining elements of everything from boxing to judo and Muay Thai, mixed martial arts (MMA) had a limited following in Saudi Arabia just a decade ago, but that started to change when the kingdom hosted the popular regional Desert Force competition in 2014.
The sport’s popularity has since soared with the rise of fighters from across the Middle East and the establishment of a national MMA foundation to develop Saudi talent.
This month saw Saudi fighters Abdullah al-Qahtani and Mostafa Rashed Neda win high-profile bouts in New York’s Madison Square Garden organised by the US-based PFL, an MMA promotion company that has come up in the wake of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s success.
The PFL intends to launch a regional league next year and stage other “mega-events” in Saudi Arabia, Wednesday’s announcement said.
The value of the deal was not disclosed, but the Financial Times reported it was $100 million.
Saudi Arabia has made waves in recent years in golf, Formula One and football, with Saudi clubs signing major stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
The flurry of deals and negotiations have spurred allegations of “sportswashing”, or using sports to distract from Saudi Arabia’s frequently criticised human rights record.