As Cristiano Ronaldo jogged out to the pitch for his Saudi Arabian debut last week, gilded confetti popped and swirled down on the stands. The crowd in the Riyadh stadium roared. Seconds later, when Lionel Messi emerged to face his longtime rival, they erupted. Before the players’ entrance, Turki al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s entertainment emperor, had instructed spectators: “I want you to set this stadium on fire!”

Al-Sheikh has polarised public opinion in the formerly ultra-conservative nation, but many young Saudis credit him for leading a drive to host concerts and sporting tournaments in the kingdom. “There are 140 countries watching you. You are in a historic moment now”, he bellowed at the ecstatic crowd.

Just a decade ago, few of those who packed the King Fahd stadium last Thursday night would have imagined this scene. Women — who were not even allowed to enter the stadium before 2017 — and men swayed together to the hip-hop booming from the speakers as they waited for the match. Messi’s team, Paris Saint-Germain, was facing an all-star Saudi side featuring Ronaldo, whose $200mn-a-year signing for Al Nassr has delighted a nation of football fanatics whose clubs have never previously been able to attract the likes of the Portuguese striker. Messi is also being courted by the Saudis.

“Saudis breathe soccer,” said Ahmed al-Harbi, a 22-year-old student in the stands. “It’s wonderful that we brought Ronaldo. And to see Messi in real life . . . I never thought I’d see this.”

Messi, who is wildly popular in the kingdom, scored the first goal. “We should have bought Messi,” one fan lamented. Some time later, Ronaldo was knocked down by a defender. He fell, curled up, then stood, dramatically stretched his jaw, and scored a penalty. By the time the match ended with a 5-4 win for Paris Saint-Germain, the fans had been rooting for whichever side scored. Ear-splitting fireworks crowned the festivities.

“I’m cheering for all of them,” a fan confided. After the game, Ronaldo presumably returned to his ultra-luxurious suite in the Four Seasons — where he has been reported to be living with his girlfriend Georgina. While sex between unmarried couples is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, authorities have been adopting a pragmatic “don’t ask don’t tell” approach with foreigners.

If the idea behind buying Ronaldo was to bolster the kingdom’s image abroad, the authorities are giving it their best shot. Foreign journalists were driven to the stadium in luxury buses and ushered around by polite young men who invited them to roam the stands.

The kingdom is undergoing deep social and economic reforms under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose popularity is skewed to the younger end of the population — the under-30s. He has neutered the religious police and allowed women to drive.

But MBS, as he is known, has also faced intense criticism abroad for human rights abuses, including a recent spate of executions and harsh sentences. One 34-year-old female PhD student was sentenced to decades in jail for a series of critical tweets. Saudi officials have alternately defended the measures and suggested that conservative members of the judiciary were lashing out against the crown prince’s more liberal reforms.

This has complicated Saudi Arabia’s push into sports, led by the sovereign Public Investment Fund, which bought the UK’s Newcastle United FC in 2021 and set up a rival to the US’s PGA golf tour. Critics dismiss this as an intentional distraction from continuing human rights abuses. “Al-Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo fits into a wider pattern of sportswashing in Saudi Arabia,” Amnesty International said in a statement ahead of the match.

But there is far more to the sports promotion — and al-Sheikh’s entertainment campaign — than that. MBS, who is 37, has upended the ruling family’s traditional support base by sidelining whole factions of the royal family, jailing business leaders under a purported corruption drive, and alienating the clergy. The younger population, who he is counting on instead, want jobs, homes, and entertainment. Last week, Prince Mohammed announced a new investment fund to create more entertainment infrastructure.

When Thursday’s game ended, fans streamed out of the stadium, several of them jumping and dancing to the Algerian rai singer Khaled’s hit “C’est La Vie”. “What more do you want?” yelled a fan. “We have everything now. Everyone’s a VIP.”

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