As the sun set over a seemingly endless stretch of open sea, Lionel Messi sat on the edge of a boat, stretched out a leg and posed for the photograph that would announce the start of his public partnership with Saudi Arabia.
The image, shared with the more than 400 million followers of Messi on Instagram on May 9, 2022, was accompanied by a caption in two languages that read: “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi.” Hours earlier, he had been received in the kingdom by Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister, who bragged on Twitter that although it was Messi’s first visit to the country, “it will not be the last.”
Messi, regarded as perhaps the best player in world soccer, was beginning to cash in on the new partnership: His Red Sea photo shoot likely netted him roughly $2 million, the first step in fulfilling his deal with the kingdom worth millions more.
Details of Messi’s role as Saudi Arabia’s well-paid promoter are contained in a previously undisclosed version of his contract with the tourism authority that was reviewed by The New York Times.
The contract shows that Messi could receive up to 22.5 million euros, about $25 million, over three years for little actual work: a few commercial appearances, a handful of social media posts and some all-expenses-paid vacations at the kingdom with his family and children. He is expected to share images from those trips, tagged with a Saudi-approved hashtag, with his large following online.
But the document also contains an important condition for Saudi officials: Messi cannot say anything that could “stain” Saudi Arabia, a country that has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record.
Those details of the deal with Messi, who won the World Cup with Argentina in December, offer an inside look at the oil-rich kingdom’s use of its wealth to recruit top athletes in its effort to polish its global image. Critics of Saudi Arabia deride the strategy as sports laundering: using sports and sports figures to whitewash the country’s human rights record, its treatment of women, the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other authoritarian actions.
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions to make big bets on professional sports: the purchase of a Premier League soccer team. Championship boxing matches. A stop on the Formula 1 auto racing program. And, most recently, a cheeky foray into professional golf.
The kingdom has offered hundreds of millions of dollars more to attract Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and dozens of other soccer stars to play in the country’s national league. Messi recently turned down a similar offer, choosing to join Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami in the United States. But so far there are no signs that the decision has affected his relationship with the Saudis. In fact, he has seemed eager to remain in his goodwill.
In February 2021, just weeks after signing his contract, Messi wrote a letter to Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister, apologizing for not being able to make a scheduled visit. In the previously unreported letter, Messi addressed Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khateeb as “Your Excellency his” and, in unusually flowery prose, expressed “deep regret” over his absence. Messi was playing for FC Barcelona at the time and wrote that as a “sportsman” he had obligations that were impossible to skip: a league match against Real Betis followed by a Spanish Cup match.
The Saudis finally received their visits. The most recent came last month, a year after his first Instagram post about Saudi tourism, when Messi took a quick mid-season vacation to the kingdom, which, like all his previous visits, would have given him a day seven-figure payment under the terms of his Saudi tourism contract.
By then, Messi had left Barcelona and was playing for the French team Paris St.-Germain. When he returned from his stay in Saudi Arabia, the French club suspended him for what he considered an unauthorized absence from training. Messi apologized to his team and his fans with an explanation that suggested that the trip was not optional: “I couldn’t cancel it.”
Until now, the details of Messi’s contract with the tourism authority have been a closely guarded secret. It is not clear if the contract reviewed by The Times is the current version of the agreement. It was shared by someone with direct knowledge of the arrangement between Messi and the Saudis on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to divulge details of the deal. The document, dated January 1, 2021, was signed by Messi and his brother Rodrigo, who serves as his business manager, but is not signed by Saudi officials.
The terms indicated in the document are consistent with the way in which Messi has used his social media accounts to promote the kingdom, and also with the promotional visits he has made to the country.
The contract is specific about Messi’s obligations, and about the money to be paid for fulfilling each one:
About 2 million dollars, almost 1.8 million euros, for a minimum of one annual family vacation of five days, or alternatively two annual vacations of three days each. Travel expenses and five-star accommodation were to be paid by the Saudi government for Messi and up to 20 family and friends.
Another $2 million for promoting Saudi Arabia on his social media accounts 10 times a year, in addition to promoting his vacation in the kingdom.
About $2 million more to participate in an annual tourism campaign. (He and the Saudi authority shared the first campaign, an elaborately shot video of the desert, in November.)
Another $2 million for charity and appearances.
Few people were willing to discuss the terms of Messi’s deal. Pablo Negre Abello, who is responsible for Messi’s business deals, cited confidentiality clauses written into all of Messi’s contracts. Abello suggested that a Times reporter contact the tourism authority. Officials there did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Rayco García Cabrera, a former soccer player who brokered the meeting between Messi’s management and Saudi officials including the tourism minister, said the deal was worth “a small amount” compared to the huge salaries the country pays stars like Ronaldo and Benzema. But, Garcia said, Messi agreed to be a tourism spokesman because he “believes in Saudi Arabia and in the vision of Saudi Arabia.”
“I was in the middle of this,” Garcia added, “and I was very surprised that Messi didn’t ask for a huge amount.” Garcia said he did not know the precise terms of the agreement.
A review of Messi’s social media posts and travel shows him apparently complying with the terms of his contract. His Instagram account —with 470 million followers, it is one of the largest on the platform— has highlighted a regular stream of Saudi messages and photographs. On his visit in May, Messi was photographed with his wife and his children participating in a variety of family activities: petting horses with his children, playing in a game room and sitting with a craft artist while holding a knitted hat.
In 2021, amid news linking Messi to Saudi Arabia, relatives of Saudi dissidents urged the player to reject the sponsorship offer he ultimately accepted. In an open letterthey pleaded with him, writing: “The Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation.”
Saudi officials have rejected that charge. Messi, for his part, has not ruled on the matter. Instead, he has expressed his awe at the natural beauty found in Saudi Arabia.
One of Messi’s recent posts is an image of the kingdom’s date palm forests and other natural attractions. The caption of the photo reads:Who thought that Arabia has so much green?”