Lionel Messi has been unveiled as an ambassador for tourism for Saudi Arabia, despite previously being urged to reject such overtures from the families of prisoners in the country.
A tweet from the Saudi Tourism Authority on Monday night showed Messi with his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Leandro Parades in the background, with the caption: ‘We welcome Lionel Messi and his friends to Jeddah to enjoy Jeddah’s historical heritage and the beauty of the Red Sea – #Messi_Ambassador_For_Saudi_Tourism’.
Messi later shared a ‘sponsored by Visit Saudi’ post on Instagram from a yacht with the caption: ‘Discovering the Red Sea in Saudi. #VisitSaudi’.
Lionel Messi was pictured arriving in Saudi Arabia on Monday evening, where he was referred to as an ambassador for tourism
Earlier this year, Messi was urged not to get involved commercially with Saudi Arabia
Later on Monday, Messi shared the above image and wrote the caption: ‘Discovering the Red Sea in Saudi. #VisitSaudi’
Back in February, after it emerged via The Telegraph that Messi had been approached by the Saudi tourism board, families of prisoners of conscience wrote a letter that urged Messi not to get involved.
The letter was organised by human rights body Grant Liberty and, via The Independent, said: ‘You are an inspiration to millions and what you say and do really matters. To put it bluntly – you have enormous power, but with that power comes great responsibility.
‘The Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation. Prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia have been tortured, sexually assaulted, and held in prolonged solitary confinement – often for months at a time – on an industrial scale.
‘Women’s rights campaigners, reformist preachers, Shia activists, democracy campaigners, indeed anyone who criticises or even questions the regime can face long-term imprisonment and in some cases the death penalty.
“If you say ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi you are in effect saying yes to all the human rights abuses that take place today in modern Saudi Arabia. But if you say ‘no’ you will send an equally powerful message – that human rights matter, that decency matters, that those who torture and murder do not do so with impunity. The world must stand up to those who trample on others.’
But even last year, Messi was involved in promotional work with Saudi Arabia with his face seen on billboards in the country. And he is far from the only sporting idol with ties to the nation.
In 2019, David Beckham was criticised for agreeing to play in an exhibition match in the country alongside his former Real Madrid team-mate Zinedine Zidane.
Unicef, for whom Beckham is a goodwill ambassador, has critcised Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen and said bombing attacks had been catastrophic.
Messi was told by families of prisoners of conscience that ‘the Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation’
David Beckham has previously been criticised for his sporting involvement with Saudi Arabia
Cristiano Ronaldo turned down a $6m offer to work commercially with Saudi Arabia
Furthermore, Amnesty International at the time released a statement urging sports stars involved in Saudi Arabia to use their platform to call out the regime.
A statement carried by The Sun said: ‘Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority may well have plans to attempt to rebrand the Kingdom’s reputation, but we should not forget the cruelty that continues in the country.
‘Saudi Arabia is currently jailing and torturing dissidents and human rights defenders, is heavily involved in the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and homes in Yemen, and the spectre of Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder hangs over the entire Saudi government.
‘Countries like Saudi Arabia are well aware of the ‘sportswashing’ value of hosting major international entertainment and sporting events.’
Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, turned down a $6m offer to work commercially with the nation last year.