Alex McLeish suggests it is 'too early' to assess the impact of Saudi Arabia’s financial strength on European football. 

The two-time former Scotland national manager, who has also managed at club level in England, Belgium and Egypt, has been taken aback more at the speed rather than the amount splurged by the Saudi Pro League (SPL).

By the time the SPL transfer window closed on September 7, they had spent £701.3m in transfer fees, outspending four out of the five leading leagues in Europe such as Ligue 1 (France), Bundesliga (Germany) Serie A (Italy) and La Liga (Spain). Only the English Premier League had a greater outlay. 

The majority of the spend came from four out of the 18 SPL clubs – Al Hilal, Al Ahli, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad – who are owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund. 

McLeish, a supporter of Show Racism the Red Card charity, said: “It’s fair to say that in the space of a few weeks they’ve turned the transfer market upside down!

"A lot of people in the game are making parallels with the Chinese [Super League] which offered big name players, plenty of money but for a number of reasons, it didn’t take off.  

“At this stage it’s not clear if the Saudis will go the same way. You’ll have to wait a few years to get a better idea.  But you know competition is a good thing.

"Much of the media attention and focus has been on the major [western] European leagues. Maybe some people in Europe got too complacent and now they’ve got a wee kick up the backside. 

“In my opinion the English Premier League is still the best in the world.  Players get paid very well but Saudi money is no doubt turning heads.

"Most of the players going over there are coming towards the end of their careers.  The test will be if they can consistently attract those who are in their prime.” 

Earlier this month the SPL Director of Football, Michael Emenalo, gave several interviews to UK broadcasters defending the transfer fees and salaries, whilst also addressing the issue of “sportwashing” – whereby Saudi Arabia uses sport to improve its reputation and divert focus away from issues such as human rights. 

McLeish, who has managed Aston Villa, Genk and Zamalek adds that putting politics to one side, he can understand why some players are going to the Middle East. 

He added: “If you’re a Premier League player who is facing the prospect of reduced game time or potentially moving to a smaller club elsewhere, then apart from your salary, moving to an up-and-coming league where you’re exposing yourself to a different culture and way of life becomes an attractive proposition.” 

He continued: “When you have the likes of golf, boxing and Formula 1 getting involved with Saudi Arabia, people in football will be asking themselves “Why not us?”  You’ve had the World Cup in Qatar and the FIFA President [Gianni Infantino] who clearly said that Europe isn’t in a position to lecture other countries.”

Muslim players in Saudi Arabia 

Several high-profile Muslim players have made the move to the SPL including Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez.

Both Mane and Benzema have been quoted as saying that moving to a “Muslim country” was a key reason for them signing for Al Nassr and Al Ittihad respectively. Moreover footage on social media has shown both players performing the Umrah pilgrimage.

Will Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah be the next Muslim superstar to be head to the Middle East?  Al Ittihad had a reported bid of £150m rejected and could try again for the Egyptian, when the transfer window opens in the New Year. 

Speaking on talkSport former Tottenham player Jamie O’Hara said Salah’s religious background will be a factor in any move to Saudi Arabia.