Another Gulf World Cup

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 7 Nov 2023

Like it or leave it, this football showcase will in all likelihood be held in Saudi Arabia in 2034, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

World cup in Saudi Arabia in 2034
World cup in Saudi Arabia in 2034


That was quick.

Before last year, the World Cup had never been held in an Arab country. Now it will be held in two Arab countries, both from the Gulf, and just 12 years apart: Qatar in 2022 and Saudi Arabia in 2034.

How quickly Saudi Arabia won the right to play host is also being measured by a speed gun. While it took Qatar 17 months to win its bid from the time it applied, Saudi Arabia was anointed the 2034 host in around 17 minutes.

Last month, 4 October, a FIFA council accepted a bid by six nations on three continents to host the 2030 World Cup. This was the only bid presented.

That same day, football’s world governing body FIFA surprisingly opened the 2034 contest and only to members from Asia and Oceania because of its rotation policy. Eligible members were given just 27 days to meet a tight deadline to enter, and just one month more to sign detailed bid documents. Before nightfall, the Saudi Arabian soccer federation was in. On Tuesday last week Australia bowed out of the race, leaving Saudi Arabia with the whole cake.

That was really quick.

To be sure, FIFA members must still formally accept the 2030 and 2034 hosts at meetings expected late next year, but FIFA President Gianni Infantino has spoken in recent weeks as if they are done deals.

Australia never knew what hit it but when it came to, it saw the light. “Saudi is a strong bid, they’ve got a lot of resources,” Football Australia CEO James Johnson said after pulling out of the bid. “Their government, top down, are prioritising the investment in football and that’s difficult to compete with.” 

Johnson correctly added that bidding for the World Cup was “not going to be favourable to Australia”.

Nor, in fact, to anybody else.

Anybody who has been paying attention can see that Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented investment in sport over recent years would lead to this moment. 

It spent tons this year on dozens of football superstars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Neymar to play in the Saudi league. It has bought English soccer club Newcastle and will stage the Club World Cup in December.

It launched the rebel breakaway LIV Golf tour and has hosted several major sporting events since 2018, including Formula 1 and boxing, most recently a clash between WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former UFC fighter Francis Ngannou in Riyadh. 

Tennis will hold a professional event in Saudi Arabia for the first time in November. 

So a World Cup, world football’s marquee event, would be the culmination of the Kingdom’s ambitious drive to become a major player in global sports.

While hosting the World Cup would be viewed as a major coup for Saudi Arabia, the country will have to deal with the usual charge that it is sportswashing: using sports and entertainment to detract from long-standing issues of human rights. Throughout its drive to become a sporting superpower it has faced allegations of sportswashing, and for the next 11 years, should Saudi Arabia win the 2034 World Cup rights, it will continue to be dogged by the sportswashing label.

Saudi Arabia will be very much in the shoes of Qatar whose hosting of the 2022 World Cup drew much criticism because of its human rights record, including its treatment of migrant workers and same-sex relationships as well as FIFA’s handling of the bidding process.

Already, Human Rights Watch has said “the possibility that FIFA could award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup… is a sham”. And already, albeit in less strident language, Amnesty International has called on FIFA to secure “clear and binding” human rights commitments.

Just like Qatar, this path has been taken and is worn out, and the arguments still stand: practically no country, including in the West, is innocent of human rights violations. And when placing a moral halo on the heads of Western democracies, it can be asked why they are not called out as sportswashers for their own human rights breaches.

Who decides who is a sportswasher? And on what basis? The decision-making is not principled. It shows a certain amount of inconsistency and hypocrisy. 

Human rights organisations have tried to put pressure on international sporting bodies that have allowed their competitions to take place in countries that reportedly violate human rights. They haven’t been successful, and the reason is usually double standards.

One person who is not perturbed at all by so-called sportswashing is Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the mastermind behind the stunning Saudi rise in the sports world. In September, the crown prince told Fox News he didn’t care about the country’s investment in sport being described as sportswashing. “Well if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one per cent, then I will continue doing sportswashing. I am aiming for another one and a half per cent. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that one and a half per cent.”

Of course, the crown prince not even wanting to recognise the word sportswashing will not deter the kingdom’s detractors.

Nor will FIFA’s statement that it is committed to protecting human rights and is stressing the rigour of its bid evaluation processes, assessing the Saudi bid for “event vision and key metrics, infrastructure, services, commercial, and sustainability and human rights”.

As for Amnesty’s advice to FIFA that it must do all this during the selection process — not after the hosts have been confirmed and tournament preparation has begun — and also be prepared to halt the bidding process “if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed”, good luck with that. In his seven years as FIFA President Infantino has first and foremost wanted football championships to be bigger by increasing the number of clubs and countries. Infantino has his own motto: “way more football”. FIFA’s avowed statement on human rights commitment will test if he takes other factors into consideration as well.

Some will agree that the media exposure accompanying the build-up to a Saudi World Cup could help accelerate reforms. And that this scrutiny should go beyond the tournament itself to the wider society.

Comparisons will also be drawn with the way that Qatar, despite so much criticism, managed to stage a World Cup deemed by many to be a success — despite a winter World Cup which will probably transpire as well in boiling Saudi Arabia. Attendance at the World Cup in Qatar was the third highest in the tournament’s history, TV viewing figures approached five billion, or 62 per cent of the world’s population, and it had the highest-scoring World Cup with 172 goals.

As for the bidding process, and that it is perceived a fait accompli, this method of choosing hosts from seemingly uncontested bids is probably preferable to the past, especially during the era of FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter, when years-long contests between many countries unearthed vote-swapping, bribery and corruption. 

FIFA and Saudi Arabia now have 11 years to try to convince the doubters.

That much time will be really not quick.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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