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Saudi Arabia offered Greece funding in return for supporting World Cup bid: Report

US report says the idea was pitched by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during the summer of 2022
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prior to their meeting at the prime minister's office in Athens, on 26 July 2022 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia offered to foot the bill for spending on World Cup infrastructure in Greece if it agreed to go along with Riyadh’s plan to co-host, along with Egypt, the event across three continents. 

The plan, first reported by Politico on Tuesday, would see Saudi Arabia pay for the construction of new sports stadiums across Greece in return for hosting 75 percent of all matches.

The idea was pitched by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during a summer trip to Athens in 2022, Politico reported, citing unnamed officials.

The move would go along with efforts by Saudi Arabia’s de factor ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from fossil fuels and tap entertainment and sporting investments.

Budding ties

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Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by the crown prince, has been at the forefront of efforts.

In 2021, the PIF acquired the English Premier League football club, Newcastle United FC. A Saudi-backed Gulf league is now competing with the PGA and in January the kingdom recruited soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo to its new club, Al Nassr.

The tripartite Saudi-Greek-Egyptian World Cup bid also tracks geopolitical developments in the region.

Greece and Egypt are historic partners and more than a 100,000 Greeks once lived in Egypt's Alexandria. Athens and Cairo have moved even closer because of mutual concern over Turkish foreign policy in the region.

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Budding ties between Greece and Saudi Arabia are newer.

In 2021, Greece sent a patriot missile battery to Riyadh, following a string of drone and missile attacks from rebels in Yemen. Along with the UAE, the Saudi air force has conducted joint training with Greece on the strategic island of Crete.

Greece was the first EU country Mohammed bin Salman visited in the summer of 2021, as he looked to emerge from international isolation after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA said he ordered.

Few voices in Egypt have expressed opposition to the joint bid. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has overseen a crackdown on dissent in the North African country, and Cairo is heavily reliant on Gulf financial support amid a mounting financial crisis.

'Brand name'

Greece is finally just emerging from a decade of its own economic turmoil after the Eurozone debt crisis, which saw widespread austerity measures imposed on Athens as part of its bailout programme. 

Some voices in Greece, however, have slammed the move.

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“We want to find out why Greece is giving away the powerful brand name of a European country that is synonymous with freedom and democracy to Saudi Arabia,” the leftist opposition party Syriza said in a statement.

Critics have accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in “sportswashing” to cover up its human rights record. At the same time, the kingdom is facing heated competition from its neighbours in the sports realm.

Qatar was the centre of international attention in December when it hosted the 2022 Word Cup. The UAE is also plowing ahead with changes to make the country more attractive to western expats.

Combining bids could give Greece, Egypt and Saudi Arabia an advantage in finding support from African, Asian and European countries, when Fifa’s 200 member associations vote on a host.

The US is cohosting the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada. The Greek capital of Athens is only a two-hour plane ride from Cairo and four hours from Riyadh.

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