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Saudi Pro League preview: What you need to know

Ahead of Saudi Arabia's new football season, here's what to expect from each of the 18 teams after a summer of high-profile transfers
Welcome ceremony for Karim Benzema after joining Al-Ittihad in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 8 June 2023 (Reuters)
The welcome ceremony for Karim Benzema at Al-Ittihad in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 8 June 2023 (Reuters)

The Saudi Pro League kicks off on Friday, with huge interest from around the world. 

For fans old and new, there is a lot to consider - and not just because the top tier has expanded from 16 to 18 teams.

After Cristiano Ronaldo paved the way by becoming the first huge international star to opt for Saudi Arabian shores this year, a number of other big names have followed suit on lucrative contracts. 

Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly - to name a few. 

From Ballon d’Or winners to high-profile new coaches and players switching from one Saudi side to another, it’s been a busy summer for the league. 

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Which stars should you look out for? How did the teams do last year, and what are they expecting this season?

Middle East Eye breaks down what you need to know: 

The contenders


  • Last season: 1st

  • Coach: Nuno Espirito Santo  

  • Star player: Karim Benzema

The Jeddah giants were deserved champions last May, thanks to a solid defence and plenty of attacking firepower. Since then, they have strengthened and then some.

The pick of the bunch is Karim Benzema, who arrives from Real Madrid as the current holder of the Fifa Ballon d’Or, football's highest individual prize. The French striker is joined by N’Golo Kante from Chelsea, Jota from Celtic and Fabinho from Liverpool.

The biggest challenge for Espirito Santo - the only coach of this year's title contenders to have been in place last season - may be to keep his stars content.

There are already rumours that Abderrazak Hamdallah, the league’s top scorer last season, is unhappy at playing second fiddle to Benzema.


  • Last season: 2nd

  • Coach: Luis Castro

  • Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo arrived at Al-Nassr halfway through last season, but couldn’t inspire the Yellows to the title.

This season, expectations are high that they will go one better than their runner-up finish, following a flurry of summer transfer activity.

Marcelo Brozovic arrived from Inter Milan, Sadio Mane from Bayern Munich, Seko Fofana from Lens and Alex Telles from Manchester United.

The attack looks to be one of the best anywhere in the world, not just in Saudi Arabia. New coach Luis Castro may not be a household name, but the pressure will be on to deliver silverware.

Al-Ittihad edged over Al-Nassr with a five-point difference to win the 2023-2023 league title (AFP)
Al-Ittihad (left) beat Al-Nassr to the 2022-2023 league title by five points (AFP)


  • Last season: 3rd

  • Coach: Jorge Jesus

  • Star Player: Ruben Neves

Al-Hilal have won 18 league titles, and have a habit of bouncing back after missing out.

The Blues were perhaps competing on too many fronts last season, with injuries and fatigue catching up on the players. They reached the final of both the Fifa Club World Cup, which they lost to Spain’s Real Madrid in an entertaining 5-3 defeat, and the Asian Champions League, losing narrowly to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds. 

Jorge Jesus has returned for a second spell as coach, and the Portuguese boss knows that anything other than a first-place finish will be considered a failure.

With new signings Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio, there is added quality. Perhaps the best of the new signings is midfielder Ruben Neves, 26, who was wanted by Barcelona and Manchester United. He could be the star of the season.


  • Last season: 4th

  • Coach: Marcel Keizer

  • Star player: Ever Banega

Al-Shabab may feel that they should have been part of the "Big Four" (Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli) that were taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in June. That perhaps explains why the six-time champions haven’t yet attracted the big-name stars, unlike their rivals.

They challenged for the title for most of last season, before falling away at the end.

New coach Marcel Keizer has experience in the Gulf region, having managed Emirati club Al-Jazira, but may find it tough to compete with the richer Saudi clubs.

There have been signs of transfer activity recently, with Brazilian winger Willian likely to arrive from Fulham, in the English Premier League. Gustavo Cuellar is also a solid signing from Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal.


  • Last season: 1st (second division)

  • Coach: Matthias Jaissle

  • Star player: Riyad Mahrez

Al-Ahli spent their first ever season in the second division, but are now back in the big time with a bang.

The Jeddah-based club have made several huge signings over the summer. In have come goalkeeper Edouard Mendy from Chelsea, Liverpool legend Roberto Firmino, Allan Saint-Maximin from Newcastle United and, most impressively of all, Riyad Mahrez, Manchester City’s star Algerian winger.

Al-Ahli now boast one of the most illustrious attacks in the Saudi Pro League. Whether that's enough for a genuine title challenge remains to be seen, but the Royals are back.

General view of the trophy at the opening of the Saudi Pro League in Jeddah on 7 August 2023 (Reuters)
The champions' trophy at the opening of the Saudi Pro League in Jeddah, on 7 August 2023 (Reuters)

The top six hopefuls


  • Last season: 7th

  • Coach: Steven Gerrard

  • Star player: Moussa Dembele

Al-Ettifaq have sparked attention in recent weeks, particularly in England.

First they hired Liverpool legend and former Rangers and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard as head coach.

Gerrard then went back to Anfield to sign Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson. The midfielder has won almost everything there is to win at club level, and will bring energy and leadership to the city of Dammam.

Al-Ettifaq struggled to find the net last season, and will hope the signing of prolific French forward Moussa Dembele will fix that. They will be looking for a top six finish in the league and to challenge in cup competitions.

steven gerrard jordan henderson al ettifaq
Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard (left) with new signing Jordan Henderson on 28 July 2023 (Reuters)


  • Last season: 8th

  • Coach: Cosmin Contra

  • Star player: Moustapha Zeghba

Damac have emerged as a force in recent seasons, but will be disappointed with their eighth-place finish last time out.

They don’t have the star power of the established giants, and may find it challenging this season - especially with the departure of Croatian coach Kresimir Rezic.

But his replacement, Cosmin Contra, is a wily tactician with a point to prove after being let go by Al-Ittihad.


  • Last season: 5th

  • Coach: Pericles Chamusca

  • Star player: Leandre Tawamba

Capable of beating anyone on their day, Al-Taawoun will be hoping for a little more consistency this season.

Brazilian coach Pericles Chamusca knows the league better than most, having previously managed Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab and second division side Al-Faisaly.

It would be a success if he can guide Al-Taawoun to a consecutive top-five finish.


  • Last season: 6th

  • Coach: Slaven Bilic

  • Star player: Firas Al-Buraikan

Al-Fateh will have been pleased with their efforts last season, and in Slaven Bilic they have a high-profile boss who has worked in the English Premier League as well as at Al-Ittihad.

The eastern-based club have relied on the goals of Firas Al-Buraikan, who can establish himself as Saudi Arabia’s number one striker if he continues his scoring form.

Saudi fans gear up to a new season full of global starts (Reuters)
Saudi fans gear up for a new season full of global stars (Reuters)

The rest


  • Last season: 10th

  • Coach: Igor Jovicevic

  • Star player: Amir Sayoud

Al-Raed, based in the north-central city of Buraidah, have yet to lift major silverware but have made an interesting coaching hire in Igor Jovicevic.

The Croatian was last in charge of Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk and will be delighted to call on the services of Algerian midfielder Amir Sayoud, who impressed with Al-Tai last season.


  • Last season: 11th

  • Coach: Vuk Rasovic

  • Star player: Fashion Sakala

Vuk Rasovic has now been in charge of Al-Fayha for two years - a long time in Saudi Arabian football.

The Serbian boss, well-supported by compatriot and goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, has the Asian Champions League to look forward to in August.

Signing Zambian forward Fashion Sakala from Scottish side Rangers looks to be a promising move.


  • Last season: 9th

  • Coach: Kresimir Rezic

  • Star player: Alfa Semedo

Northerners Al-Tai have lost some of the players who kept them in the league last season, such as Amir Sayoud and Knowledge Musona.

But hiring Kresimir Rezic, the Croatian coach who succeeded with Damac, could prove to be a slick move. 


  • Last season: 4th (second division)

  • Coach: Yannick Ferrera

  • Star player: Knowledge Musona

Al-Riyadh were the lowest placed of the teams promoted from the second division, but have made some smart manoeuvres in order to stay in the top flight.

Zimbabwe midfielder Knowledge Musona impressed for Al-Tai over the past two seasons, and will bring plenty of knowhow to the midfield.

Coach Yannick Ferrera also has extensive experience in Saudi Arabia, having worked at Al-Fateh and Al-Shabab. 

General view at the opening of the Saudi Pro League Saudi Pro League Media Office Jeddah on 7 August 2023 (Reuters)
The opening of the Saudi Pro League in Jeddah on 7 August 2023 (Reuters)


  • Last season: 13th

  • Coach: Georgios Donis

  • Star player: Anselmo

Al-Wehda had a good campaign last year, surviving relegation and getting to the final of the King’s Cup.

They lost that tournament in heartbreaking fashion, as Al-Hilal scored an equaliser in the dying minutes of the game before going on to win in a penalty shootout.

Al-Wehda were the lowest scorers in the league last season, and will need to find extra firepower in attack this time round. 


  • Last season: 14th

  • Coach: Pedro Emanuel

  • Star player: Fabio Martins

Last season, the newly promoted Al-Khaleej finished one place clear of the relegation zone.

They were kept up partly by the goals of mid-season signing Fabio Martins, and will have a good chance of doing the same if the Portuguese star continues where he left off. 

The signing of Jung Woo-young, capped 70 times for the South Korean national team, will add experience and height to the midfield. 


  • Last season: 12th

  • Coach: Czeslaw Michniewicz

  • Star player: Grzegorz Krychowiak

Southwestern-based Abha have hired former Poland national team coach Czeslaw Michniewicz in a bid to help them to a higher-placed finish.

The signing of Polish international midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, who played at the World Cup in Qatar last year, is also a move in the right direction.


  • Last season: 3rd (second division)

  • Coach: Jorge Mendonca

  • Star player: Alex Collado

Al-Okhdood have the exciting yet difficult prospect of playing their first ever top flight season just as some of the biggest names in world football have arrived to play for their opponents.

The southern side will need the likes of Alex Collado, a former Barcelona player, to bring goals and creativity.


  • Last season: 2nd (second division)

  • Coach: Filipe Gouveia

  • Star player: Vina

Al-Hazem finished second behind Al-Ahli in the second tier last season, and are another team with an experienced Portuguese coach.

They will have a fight on their hands to survive relegation, but the signing of experienced Brazilian midfielder Vina should help.

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