Saudi Arabia’s sports minister says claims of ‘sportswashing’ against the country are “very shallow”, as he defended its right to host the men’s football World Cup.
Speaking to the BBC in Jeddah, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said: “A lot of the people that accuse us of that haven’t been to Saudi, or seen what we are doing.”
Critics say unprecedented spending on sport has been used to improve the oil-producing kingdom’s reputation over its human rights record and its environmental impact.
But the Saudi government insists the investment is boosting the economy, opening it up to tourism and inspiring people to be more active.
In his first interview since it emerged the country was bidding unopposed for the 2034 men’s World Cup, the minister:
- Said Saudi Arabia was “studying the possibility” of hosting the tournament in the summer, despite the kingdom’s extreme heat
- Backed the Fifa process that led to Saudi’s World Cup bid emerging unchallenged, denying “any lack of transparency”
- Defended the Saudi Pro League’s £750m summer transfer spending spree, arguing that “nobody questioned [the Premier League] when they did it”, and that he was “sure next year we’ll have more attendance” after small crowds at some games
- Vowed the controversy over neighbouring Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers before the 2022 World Cup was “not going to be repeated”
- Insisted “everyone is welcome” at the event, despite the concerns of some fans about a country where homosexuality is illegal and women’s rights are restricted.
A suitable host?
Saudi Arabia has invested around £5bn in sports since 2021, when the country’s Crown Prince made it a key part of his strategy to diversify the economy, with a host of major sporting events brought to the kingdom, including high-profile boxing and Formula 1.
The country’s Public Investment Fund has also launched the breakaway LIV golf series, taken control of four Saudi Pro League clubs and purchased Newcastle United.
But campaigners claim this vast state investment into sport is being used to distract from long-standing reputation issues such as Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the war in Yemen – a process known as ‘sportswashing’.
Speaking in Jeddah, where his country has recently hosted both an America’s Cup regatta and ATP Tennis event for the first time, and is now preparing to host this month’s Fifa Club World Cup, Prince Abdulaziz said accusations of ‘sportswashing’ were “very shallow”.
“Twenty million of our population are below the age of 30, so we need to get them engaged – we are playing our role to develop sports within the world and to be part of the international community” he said.
When asked if his country would be a suitable host of the 2034 World Cup, he added: “We’ve showcased that – we’ve hosted more than 85 global events and we’ve delivered on the highest level. We want to attract the world through sports. Hopefully, by 2034, people will have an extraordinary World Cup.”
While campaigners acknowledge reforms over women’s freedoms in Saudi Arabia in recent years, they also point to a reported rise in the number of executions, the continuing male guardianship system and the imprisonment of activists for online dissent.
Fifa has been urged to secure commitments to improving human rights before formally confirming a Saudi World Cup next year. According to Fifa guidelines, countries bidding to host the event must commit to respect human rights.
“Any country has room for improvement, no-one’s perfect. We acknowledge that and these events help us reform to a better future for everyone” claimed Prince Abdulaziz.
Women in Saudi Arabia were only allowed to enter sports stadia to watch matches in 2018, but since then a professional women’s football league and national women’s team has been created, with more than 70,000 girls now playing regularly.
However, last month Jake Daniels, the UK’s only openly gay active male professional footballer, told the BBC he “wouldn’t feel safe” at the 2034 World Cup.
“Everyone’s welcome in the kingdom” said Prince Adbulaziz. “Like any other nation we have rules and regulations that everyone should abide by and respect. When we come to the UK we respect the rules and regulations, whether we believe in them or not. Through the 85 events that we have had so far, we haven’t had any issues.”
A summer World Cup?
It is widely expected that the 2034 tournament will be in winter to avoid the country’s extreme summer temperatures, as with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
But Prince Abdulaziz said organisers were “definitely studying” whether it could be staged in summer.
“Why not see what the possibilities are to do it in the summer? Whether it is summer or winter it doesn’t matter for us, as long as we make sure that we [deliver] the right atmosphere to host such an event” he said.
Saudi Arabia is already building three new stadia for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, but must have 14 venues with capacities of 40,000 or more for the World Cup.
In October, human rights group Amnesty raised concerns over the treatment of migrant workers in the kingdom.
When asked if there could be similar issues to the controversy that dogged the Qatar World Cup over workers’ rights, Prince Abdulaziz said: “I assure you it’s not going to be repeated.
“We have 10 years to work on that, we already started in a lot of the venues, so we have a long time to do it in the right time, in the right process… We’re already developing infrastructure… so we are not required to build a lot more to host such an event.”
But environmental groups have expressed concerns over the environmental impact of staging a 48-team event, pointing to the energy required for cooling systems, the desalination of water and carbon-intensive infrastructure projects.
Referencing various initiatives that the Saudi government says is helping it to diversify away from fossil fuels and reduce omissions, Prince Abdulaziz said: “It’s a mandate on us in the kingdom to make sure that we abide by the international regulations… to make sure that we play our role, to make sure that it’s eco-friendly.”
He also rejected criticism that the world’s biggest oil exporter is using sport to distract from its record on sustainability, saying: “I reject that completely because we are taking that seriously and thinking that we are part of this globe… and we have to play our role in that and we are doing that.”
In March, Fifa dropped plans for Saudi Arabia’s tourism body to sponsor the Women’s World Cup following a backlash from co-hosts Australia and New Zealand and some players about the proposed deal.
When asked about reports that state-owned oil giant Aramco is in talks over a sponsorship deal with Fifa, Prince Abdulaziz said: “Aramco has been open to a lot of sponsors around the world in sports and they believe in sports because it’s a good platform for them to develop and so on… they’ve sponsored Formula One, they’ve sponsored a lot of events around the world. I don’t see what the issue is with Fifa – or is it just because it’s Fifa?”
The bidding process
Concerns have been raised over the fast-tracked Fifa process that blocked most countries from bidding for the 2034 World Cup, and resulted in Saudi Arabia standing unopposed.
At the time of the announcement, fan group ‘Football Supporters Europe’ said it “rolls the red carpet out” for the country.
But Prince Abdulaziz rejected any suggestion that the governing body had paved the way for his country.
“It’s just a theory,” he said. “What we should look at is what benefits the sport of football.
“Everyone was clear on the regulations, nobody objected to them during [the process] so I don’t think there was any lack of transparency from Fifa. It was only that we were ready to do it and maybe others weren’t. That’s not our fault.
“As you can see from the announcement of more than 125 federations in support of the Saudi bid… the world also wants us to host 2034.”
Fifa has said that a full evaluation of bids for the 2030 and 2034 World Cups is still to be completed before votes by all national associations at its Congress next year, and said its rotation policy helps to grow the game.
Saudi Pro League
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was the first notable figure to make the switch to the revamped Saudi Pro League last year. Since then a host of stars, such as Karim Benzema, Neymar, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Neves have followed suit, with £750m lavished on new signings this summer, sending shockwaves through football’s transfer market.
“I think the Premier League did that and that’s how they started. So nobody questioned them when they did it,” said Prince Abdulaziz, when asked if the spending was a threat to more established European leagues.
BBC Sport attended the recent Riyadh derby between Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr and rivals Al-Hilal while covering a number of events, accompanied by Ministry of Sport officials, during several days in Saudi Arabia. The game was played in front of more than 50,000 fans, but crowds at some smaller clubs have been as low as several hundred, with average attendances less than 9,000.
“It’s building blocks… I’m sure that next year we’ll have more attendance,” said Prince Abdulaziz.
“Like anywhere in the world there’s some matches that attract much more audience than others, but all of our big matches have attracted record numbers so far… we’re broadcasting to 147 countries around the world.
“When we planned to develop the league we never thought that we would do it with such pace, but to see that is actually refreshing and it actually showcases the importance of this. Our focus is to develop our league to attract the best in the world.”