As the sun set over a seemingly endless expanse of open sea, Lionel Messi took a seat at the edge of a boat, stretched out a leg and posed for the photograph that would announce the beginning of his public partnership with Saudi Arabia.
The image, shared with Messi’s 400 million-plus followers on Instagram on May 9, 2022, was accompanied by a dual-language caption that read, “Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi.” Hours earlier, he had been welcomed to the kingdom by Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister, who had boasted on Twitter that while it was Messi’s first visit to the country, “it will not be the last.”
Messi, who is regarded perhaps as global soccer’s greatest player, was starting to cash in on the new partnership: His photo-op in the Red Sea likely earned him approximately $2 million, the first step in fulfilling his agreement with the kingdom that is worth millions more.
The details of Messi’s role as a well-compensated pitchman for Saudi Arabia are contained in a previously undisclosed version of his contract with the tourism authority that was reviewed by the The New York Times.
The contract shows that Messi could receive as much as 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 to the kingdom with his family and children. He is expected to share images of those trips — marked with a Saudi-approved hashtag — with his vast online following.
But the document also contains a condition important to Saudi officials: Messi cannot say anything that might “tarnish” Saudi Arabia, a country that has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record.
Those details of the arrangement with Messi, who won the World Cup with Argentina in December, offer an inside glimpse of the oil-rich kingdom’s use of its wealth to enlist marquee athletes in its effort to burnish its global image. Saudi Arabia’s critics deride the strategy as sportswashing: using sports and sports figures to whitewash the country’s human rights record, its treatment of women, its killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and other authoritarian actions.
For the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions to take big stakes in professional sports: The purchase of a Premier League soccer team. Championship boxing matches. A stop on the Formula 1 auto racing schedule. And, most recently, a brazen incursion into professional golf.
The kingdom has offered hundreds of millions of dollars more to lure Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and dozens of other soccer stars to play in the country’s domestic league. Messi recently declined a similar offer, choosing instead to join Inter Miami of Major League Soccer in the United States. But there’s no sign so far that the decision has affected his relationship with the Saudis. Indeed, he has seemed eager to stay in their good graces.
In February 2021, just weeks after he signed his contract, Messi wrote a letter to Saudi’s tourism minister, apologizing for being unable to make a scheduled visit. In the previously unreported letter, Messi addressed the tourism minister, Ahmed al-Khateeb, as “Your Excellency” and, in unusually flowery prose, expressed his “deepest regrets” for his absence. Messi was then playing for F.C. Barcelona, and he wrote that as “a sportsman,” he had obligations that were impossible to skip: a league game against Real Betis followed by a match in the Spanish cup.
The Saudis got their visits eventually. The most recent came last month, a year after his first Saudi tourism post on Instagram, when Messi took a quick, midseason vacation to the kingdom — which, like all of his previous visits, would have yielded him a seven-figure payday 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 Saudi sojourn, the French club suspended him for what it deemed an unauthorized absence from training. Messi apologized to his team and its fans with an explanation that suggested 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 held secret. It is not clear if the contract reviewed by The Times is the current version of the deal. It was shared by someone with direct knowledge of the arrangement between Messi and the Saudis on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to divulge details of the deal. The document, dated Jan. 1, 2021, was signed by Messi and his brother Rodrigo, who serves as his business manager, but it is not signed by Saudi officials.
The terms outlined in the document are consistent with the way 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, nearly 1.8 million euros, for a minimum of one family vacation annually lasting five days, or alternately two annual vacations of three days each. The travel expenses and five-star accommodations were to be paid by the Saudi government for Messi and up to 20 family members and friends.
Another $2 million for promoting Saudi Arabia on his social media accounts 10 times a year, separately from the promotion of his vacations to 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 desert video, in November.)
Another $2 million for charitable work and appearances.
Few people were willing to discuss the terms of Messi’s deal. Pablo Negre Abello, who is responsible for Messi’s commercial 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 minister of tourism, said the deal was worth “a small amount” compared with the huge salaries the country is paying stars like Ronaldo and Benzema. But, García said, Messi agreed to be a tourism spokesman because “he believes in Saudi and the vision of Saudi.”
“I was in the middle of this,” García added, “and I was so surprised when Messi didn’t ask for a huge amount.” García said he did not know the precise terms of the agreement.
A review of Messi’s social media postings and travel show him seemingly fulfilling the terms of his contract. His Instagram account — with 470 million followers, it is one of the largest on the platform — has featured a regular stream of Saudi messaging and photographs. On his visit in May, Messi was photographed with his wife and children participating in a variety of family activities: petting horses with his sons, playing games at an arcade and sitting with a craft artist while holding a woven hat.
In 2021, amid news reports linking Messi and Saudi Arabia, family members of Saudi dissidents urged the player to reject the endorsement offer that he eventually accepted. In an open letter, they pleaded with him by writing, “The Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation.”
Saudi officials have rejected that charge. Messi, meanwhile, has made no mention of it. Instead, he has expressed wonder at the natural beauty to be found in Saudi Arabia.
One of Messi’s recent posts is a picture of the kingdom’s date palm groves and other natural attractions. The caption reads: “Who thought Saudi has so much green?”