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First Qatar, Now Saudi Arabia: Time for Activists to Rethink

James M. Dorsey

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The realisation that Saudi Arabia is not Qatar may seem obvious, but it has significant meaning for the lessons rights activists and others draw from the Qatar World Cup as they prepare for a Saudi-hosted tournament in 2034.

Saudi Arabian fans celebrate the 2-1 win during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia on November 22, 2022. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Understanding the differences will frame efforts to pressure Saudi Arabia to adhere to all kinds of rights, including human, women, worker, and gender diversity rights.

The differences further call into question whether sportswashing is the most accurate framing or whether the term risks missing the point of what Gulf state involvement in sports is about.

The Gulf is all about security and geopolitics.

Reputational concerns, soft power, and utility to the international community mean different things to countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and count for far more than reputation on rights issues. This is not to say that reputation in terms of rights is not important but to determine where it ranks on the Qatari and Saudi priority list.

Because of its size, Qatar understands that it is far more dependent on its reputation for its defence and security strategy than for example Saudi Arabia.

One lesson Qatar has drawn from the World Cup experience is that rights issues are not the foremost factor determining its reputation and value to the international community.

For Qatar, sports is as much a pillar of a multi-pronged security-driven soft power policy as it is about economic diversification and public health. Sports is more a function of positioning Qatar as the ultimate go-between and meeting place than it is about reputation.

Qatar concluded that rights issues were not a determining factor from the way it was able to tighten relations with the United States and other Western countries during the Saud-UAE-led 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that ended in 2021, and its increased importance as a gas producer as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What this in effect means is that without Western nations adhering to the values they profess, rights campaigns are likely to be waged on a shaky fundament. That has become even truer with the evident contradictions in Western policy towards Ukraine and Gaza.

For activists to compensate for what amounts to their Achilles Heel, they will have to be seen to be holding as much Western nations to account as they do in focusing on Saudi Arabia. In that same vein, activists will have to be seen far more than was the case with Qatar as distancing themselves from criticism that is racially tinted, including anti-Muslim sentiment.

Saudi Arabia is certain to be a different kettle of fish.

Qatar saw virtue in engaging with its critics irrespective of how sincere Qatar’s engagement was. In doing so, it broke ranks with other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to see an upside in engagement.

Unlike Qatar, Saudi Arabia feels it has leverage and does not need to pay attention to activists and others. It feels that it ranks in the top tier of players on the international stage where rights issues are not a determining factor.

It’s what allows Saudi Arabia to poke the United States in the eye on human rights and get away with it. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has proof positive given his ability to successfully put the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul behind him.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Photo:  Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Mr. Bin Salman also made clear in a recent Fox News interview that he could not care less about allegations of sportswashing.

The trick in breaking through Saudi armour is going to be identifying entry points where Saudi Arabia may have an interest in change, keeping in mind that, unlike Qatar, Saudi Arabia will be far less interested in being seen as working with rights groups.

Saudi Arabia will want to project any potential change as being wholly its decision much like Mr. Bin Salman handled the 2018 lifting of a ban on women’s driving. While lifting the ban, the crown prince incarcerated activists who had long campaigned for women’s right to drive to ensure that they would not get any of the credit.

This will take engagement that puts naming and shaming as a tactic on the back burner and a tool one resorts to as a last resort on the understanding that it would likely lead to a slamming of the door rather than a change of heart.

It will also take creative packaging of what’s in it for Saudi Arabia.

Fact of the matter is that all the traditional arguments in favour of the value of respecting rights are considerations that have no meaning for Mr. Bin Salman. They will only have meaning, if and when Western democracies put their money where their mouth is and are willing to pay a price for standing up for values they profess.

Whatever chance Western nations had in projecting themselves on the back of Ukraine as willing to do so has been undermined by the Gaza war, meaning it will take a lot more to restore credibility and leverage.

It’s a reality that affects the standing of major non-governmental organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, that irrespective of their condemnations of Israel policy before and after October 7 are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as Western organizations.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called out Saudi Arabia for its poor human rights record. Photo: Getty Image

What is clear is that what’s in it for Mr. Bin Salman is closely aligned with his determination to maintain his grip on power, his vision of Saudi Arabia’s place in the world, and relevance to his economic diversification plans. Understanding that these are the divers of Saudi Arabia’s massive invasion of global sports is key to putting a kink in his armour.

Labour rights may be the foremost entry point where Saudi Arabia could see an interest in engaging, particularly if the propositioning is framed less in terms of rights and more in terms of a Saudi reformed labour regime that potentially could serve as a model for others.

All of this is food for thought as one evaluates Qatar-related activism and thinks about how to approach Saudi hosting of a World Cup.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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