UK soccer club Arsenal caught in sponsorship row over deal with aid-recipient Rwanda

Key Points
  • U.K. soccer club Arsenal and the Rwandan Development Board last week announced a sponsorship deal which will see "Visit Rwanda" printed on the sleeves of the Arsenal kit next season, intended to promote tourism to Rwanda.
  • Netherlands lawmakers have criticized the deal, which is worth an undisclosed sum, given that Rwanda is a recipient of Dutch aid.
  • Rwandan officials have defended the move, with one explaining to the BBC that the country must be "proactive" in marketing its tourism to the world.
Courtesy of Arsenal Football Club

A row has blown up over a sponsorship deal between one of the world's richest soccer clubs and the landlocked African country of Rwanda.

Last week, the Rwanda Development Board unveiled a three-year partnership with the U.K.'s Arsenal Football Club. The team's kit for the 2018/19 season will bear the "Visit Rwanda" logo on its left sleeve.

The deal was reported to have cost £30 million ($40 million), and drew criticism from lawmakers in the Netherlands, according to local press reports.

De Telegraaf, the biggest newspaper in the Netherlands, published a story in which Joel Voordewind, a member of parliament for the Christian Union party, questioned the Dutch development minister's commitment to supplying aid to Rwanda in light of the deal. Isabelle Diks of the GroenLinks party also described the deal as "disheartening," according to media reports.

But, Rwandan officials have vigorously defended the move. Speaking on the BBC's "Today" program Tuesday, Clare Akamanzi, chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board, said that the amount paid was less than had been reported.

"Our goal is to not remain a poor country," she said, adding that Rwanda's per capita income a year had tripled over the past 15 years, from $200 to over $700. "Rwanda has made choices to strive for self-reliance … and not perpetually look at itself as an aid recipient," she added. "How is that going to happen if we are not proactive in the way we market ourselves to the world?"

Last week, Rwanda's Foreign Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe tweeted a response to De Telegraaf's story, saying to Dutch lawmakers that the deal was "none of your business."

The U.K. donated upwards of £64 million in aid to Rwanda in 2017/18. The country, which witnessed a brutal genocide in 1994 which killed hundreds of thousands of people, is also one of 15 countries to receive aid from the Netherlands.

But, Akamanzi said that Rwanda's reliance on aid had shrunk from 80 percent of its budget 15 years ago to 17 percent currently.

In a statement released last week, Arsenal's Chief Commercial Officer Vinai Venkatesham said that Rwanda "has been transformed in recent years," and that the "exciting partnership" would help support the country's tourism industry.

According to the Rwandan Development Board, tourism is the country's biggest foreign exchange earner and has generated over 90,000 jobs. "Our national goal is to double tourism receipts from $404 million to $800 million by 2024," it added in a statement Sunday.

Rwanda's economy is expected to grow 7.2 percent this year, well above the emerging market average of 4.9 percent according to the International Monetary Fund. The country is ranked as the second easiest place to do business in Africa by the World Bank, while the capital city of Kigali is known as a burgeoning technology hub. President Paul Kagame is a proponent of pan-African free trade.

But, Human Rights Watch accuses the Rwandan government of torture and restricting freedom of speech.

A spokesperson for Arsenal was not immediately available when contacted by CNBC.