CELTIC have been urged to enter into a money-spinning partnership with a Saudi Arabian club - or risk being priced out of the international transfer market as the oil-rich Middle East nation increases its investment in football.

Jota completed a £25m move to Saudi Professional League outfit Al-Ittihad on Monday night and banked the Scottish champions a cool £19m profit on a player they bought from Benfica for £6m just 12 months ago in the process.

But could the billions of petrodollars which the Gulf state has started pouring in to the beautiful game have potentially-detrimental long-term implications for the treble winners and their Premiership rivals? 

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The Portuguese winger is the latest high-profile footballer to move to Saudi Arabia; Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr back in January, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante joined Al-Ittihad this summer and Ruben Neves completed his switch to Al-Hilal last month.

Elsewhere, Steven Gerrard, the former Liverpool and England midfielder and Rangers and Aston Villa manager, was appointed by Al-Ettifaq earlier this week as well. 

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The influx of many of the sport’s biggest names is a direct consequence of “Saudi Vision 2030” – a strategic framework which the country’s rulers hope will expand and diversify their economy and make them less reliant on oil for income.

However, the Jota transfer has highlighted that it is not just global superstars which the leading clubs in the football-obsessed nation are targeting - and that could prove to be problematic for Celtic as well as Rangers going forward. 

Mohammed Hamdi, a former chief executive at ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands who oversees commercial and marketing activities for Al-Jazira in Abu Dhabi, is an expert on Middle East football. He is convinced what the football world has witnessed in the past seven months is simply the start of the recruitment drive. 

“You can see what is happening,” he said. “Ronaldo was one of the first big players to go to Saudi Arabia. Now they have Kante, Benzema, Neves, Jota. There have been eight or nine big players who have decided to go and play there. But, to be honest, it is only the beginning.”

Celtic have, due to the value of the broadcasting deal in Scotland in comparison with wealthier European football nations, long been unable to compete with clubs in the likes of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain in the transfer market.

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They have enjoyed great success both on and off the park in recent years by bringing in promising youngsters, developing them over time and then selling them on for millions more than they paid originally.

However, Martin Lowe, who writes about football in Saudi Arabia for The Asian Game website, believes they are now facing increased competition from Saudi Professional League clubs for those kind of players. 

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“Saudi Arabian clubs are bringing a mix of marquee players like Benzema and Ronaldo and the sort of developing talents who clubs like Celtic have tried to pick up in the past,” he said. “They are trying to head them off before they get to Europe. 

“Once they have got the headline grabbers in, and Roberto Firmino has been linked to Al-Ahli and is expected to be the next one to go, they will start to look for players who are on the way up. Especially the clubs outwith the top four. It is already happening to an extent. Celtic are probably competing with them for players at that level now.

“At the moment, Celtic have the size of the club and European football as carrots. But Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern clubs have money. If their league gains greater exposure from players like Ronaldo being there, that will be another incentive for young players to go there.

“Kyogo Furuhashi went to Celtic to gain experience at a good level in Europe. But in future players like Kyogo might well be diverted to Saudi Arabia if the standard improves. A couple of Japanese players have already gone to Qatar.”

So what can Celtic do? Hamdi has a prospective solution. He has seen a number of clubs across the continent start to form tie-ups with Middle East outfits and advocates them taking the same approach.  

“I would advise a club like Celtic in Scotland to try to go in to a partnership with a team in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They shouldn’t try to compete with them financially because if they do that they will lose. The best thing they can do is to make the best of the situation and get involved with them.

“For example, they could have an arrangement to bring the best young players from a Saudi Arabian club over to the Celtic youth department and try to develop them. And vice versa. They could do the same with first team players. They could look to do business and agree sponsorships on the back of that.

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“That is the most sensible thing for them to do. What is happening in Saudi Arabia is like a train and it will not stop. As I say, if Celtic try to compete with them they will not be successful. They should get on board with it.

“That would be my advice to Celtic and to other European clubs. Benfica from Portugal, Valencia from Spain and Chelsea in England have already done this to an extent. Celtic are a respected name in football, they have a fantastic loyal fan base, they have something to offer.

“There is a chance for them to open up the market, get more business from Saudi Arabia, improve their brand awareness in the Middle East region, increase their income and with that increased income buy better players. For me, it would be a positive game changer for them.

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“If clubs think they don’t have to work together with or align themselves with clubs in the Middle East region that is their prerogative. But those clubs will struggle far more than others who do in the upcoming period. 

“Not just Celtic. Their Glasgow rivals Rangers should consider it as well. Maybe even Aberdeen too. They have a good international name because of their association with Sir Alex Ferguson many years ago.

“These teams could have something unique if they entered into partnerships with clubs in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. In my opinion, they should try to work together with them and improve their financial situation.

“It would not enable them to compete for players with the Premier League clubs in England, but they could compete with Belgium, the Netherlands, even with France to a degree. It would help the positioning of Scottish football in Europe.”  

Hamdi added: “Even Premier League clubs can’t compete when the Saudi Arabian clubs make a bid for a player currently. What they should do is to form alliances with Saudi Arabian clubs and find more income to spend on player transfers. It is not wise to try to compete with them.

“So try to get closer to the market and open up the market. An association would mean that people in the Middle East would follow the social media accounts of Celtic and companies in the Middle East would be interested in partnering with Celtic. I would advise them to increase their brand awareness and their income.

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“Maybe they will say: ‘We don’t really want to be involved in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East’. But other clubs will do it and will exploit the gap in the market. If Celtic try to catch up in two or three years it will be too late by then because the market will be sewed up. Now is the time to do it, the right moment to develop a strategy.

“I know that more big clubs, the likes of Chelsea and Inter Milan, are looking at this. The owner of Chelsea was in Saudi Arabia last week talking about players going over. This is smart. Celtic should be looking to do the same thing.”

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Celtic were formed by Brother Walfrid in 1887 to raise money for the poor of the East End of Glasgow and have retained their charitable intentions throughout their 136 year history.

Their hundreds of thousands of supporters around the world are rightly proud of their origins and ethos and would doubtless revolt if the current custodians of the club chose to form a commercial partnership with clubs in a country which has an appalling human rights record.

The Ministry of Sport in Saudi Arabia announced last month that the country’s Public Investment Fund was to take control of 75 per cent of the top flight’s four founding members – Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Nassr.

But Valencia, whose president Chan Lay Hoon has signed an agreement with the United Nations and vowed to fight for the equality and empowerment of women, held a training camp at the Waad Academy in Jeddah before their participation in the Spanish Super Cup in in January.

Over 40 male and female players of all ages took part in a three day camp that was the first step in the Mestalla club’s mission to develop women’s football in the Middle East and promote their image and methodology there.

Elsewhere, Benfica have also entered into a partnership with Heights and Jewels KSA Group and plan to examine commercial opportunities across Saudi Arabia going forward.

“We are very honoured to be part of the global change that Saudi Arabia is making through sport and are determined to commit our knowledge, experience and talent to the project,” said Benfica president Rui Costa.

Both Hamdi and Lowe dismiss suggestions that Saudi Arabia are investing heavily in football in a cynical attempt to “sportswash” their badly-tarnished international reputation – an accusation that was made when they launched the controversial LIV Golf tour last year.

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“I disagree,” said Hamdi. “Saudi Arabia is in love with football and they now want to develop the league. It is a business model. I think they are on the right track.

“There are positives of being involved for supporters of a club like Celtic – their football team develops, there is a coming together of different cultures, their brand is promoted around the world, there could be games in the Middle East, not just Europe.

“Let’s be honest, every country has its own internal issues. It is so important to have dialogue and formulate an opinion. Speak with people, not about them. I can only see the upsides. This is a chance to bring the world closer.”

Lowe said: “It is Saudi Arabia’s ambition to change. I would argue when it comes to football that it is overstated how much that is for an external audience.

“The focus of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to change perceptions of the country internally. There is a younger population who are aware of how their society is viewed around the world. They want to move away from their past.”

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