Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Last week, NBA superstar and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James was spotted chilling with his business team in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While there, he scoped out some basketball prospects, hung out with Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, the Saudi Minister of culture, and—since I don’t think anyone would fly halfway across the world just to fake-scout a Saudi national team practice—probably did some other stuff involving food, business deals, fancy hotels, and other rich-people pursuits.
James’ visit to KSA came just a few weeks after he joked about playing in Saudi Arabia after a spate of high-profile, big-money signings by the country’s burgeoning soccer league. Over the past two years or so, the Saudis, on the hunt for diversification opportunities, have poured as much money as they can into sports, particularly golf and soccer.
For the Saudis, that pursuit makes total sense. If a country built by an exploited migrant subclass has a bunch of liquid money lying around, there’s no better investment than greasing a few palms in the FIFA front office to bring the World Cup to town, as they’re doing this December. Rich people fly in from everywhere and see your petrostate with its best face on; sports media pundits rave about what a good job you did putting the tournament on; everyone leaves with a big smile on their face; and the local contractors pat their tummies, fat and happy off the new soccer stadiums you just had to build.