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Saudi sports strategy challenges global sports governors and activists alike

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

James M. Dorsey




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Even before it officially launched, Saudi Arabia's bid to host the 2030 World Cup is on thin ice.


The bid suggests that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to do whatever it takes to become a dominant force in international sports.


However, the hubris underlying the approach, rooted in a belief that there is little that money cannot buy, may be the kingdom’s Achilles Heel.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman speaks during televised interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 27, 2021. Picture taken April 27, 2021. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS


Saudi Arabia has good reason to believe that it is on a roll. One of the world's foremost oil producers, Saudi Arabia is in demand as Europe reduces its dependency on Russian product in the wake of the Ukraine war.


Moreover, countries and corporations across the globe are eager to cash in on opportunities generated by Mr. Bin Salman's mega-projects and plans to diversify the Saudi economy.


For the Saudi 2030 bid, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup late last year is likely an important case study. Qatar turned its management of the tournament into a success story.


Qatar reaped the reputational benefits associated with the tournament, despite the often strong, prolonged, and, at times, Islamophobic criticism of its migrant labor regime and human rights record.


Human rights and other activists kicked off their campaign for reforms in Qatar immediately after the December 2010 awarding of the 2022 hosting rights by world soccer body FIFA, and have not taken their eye off the ball since.


However, at best, they made a small dent in the reputational benefits reaped by Qatar.

Fans poured into the Gulf state for matches in a tournament that is perceived as one of the most exhilarating in World Cup history, despite the high cost of tickets and accommodation, qualms about migrant rights, concerns about LGBTQ safety, and restrictions on the consumption of alcohol.


Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia hopes to cash in on the Gulf’s growing influence in international sports. Already, the heads of the Saudi and Qatari soccer associations—Yasser Almisehal and Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Thani —have been elected to FIFA’s 37-member council and main decision-making body.


Qatar Football Association President Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Thani during the season opening ceremony of the Qatar Stars League. Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar/Mohan


While it is the FIFA congress rather than the council that awards hosting rights, it does put Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the heart of Asian and global football politics.


Even so, Saudi hubris means that the kingdom, unlike Qatar, is unlikely to engage with its critics and adopt some reforms, including changes to its labor laws and a more laissez-faire attitude towards LGBTQ fans attending a tournament. Add in Saudi Arabia’s case, an unrelenting crackdown on freedom of expression far harsher than Qatari restrictions.


That was evident in a recent decision by a Saudi appeals court to extend the prison sentence of 72-year-old Saudi-American dual national Saad Ibrahim Almadi that amounted to a public snub to the United States, after the State Department of State privately attempted to intervene on Mr. Almadi’s behalf.


Mr. Almadi was arrested by Saudi authorities in 2021 for a series of critical tweets he posted while in the United States and has allegedly been kept in sub-standard conditions since.


Mr. Almadi’s fate suggests that US efforts to achieve human rights results in the kingdom through private diplomacy has not worked.


In turn, that raises the question whether awarding Saudi Arabia mega-event hosting rights would produce a better outcome.


Mr. Bin Salman appears to believe that he has a free pass—or at least more leeway—regarding Saudi Arabia’s troubled human rights record, which ranges from the imprisonment of critics to the doubling of the number of executions in the Kingdom since the crown prince came to office, as well as the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


When considered alongside Saudi efforts to entrench the kingdom in the global sports arena, such actions necessarily challenge the self-constructed, fictional narrative in which global sports executives and governments assert that sports and politics are separate.


In the real world, sports and politics are fundamentally intertwined, especially when it comes to granting or rejecting a hosting bid. At the core of these bid decisions is the determination that a potential host country is either representative of the values of the international sports organization or not, a determination that is intrinsically political.


Although sports organizations may wish to ignore this reality, thereby absolving themselves of the need for oversight, the connection between sports and politics is only becoming more obvious as time goes on.


The Saudi World Cup bid comes on the back of the kingdom securing hosting rights for the Asian Football Confederation's 2027 AFC Cup and the Olympic Council of Asia’s 2029 Asian Winter Games.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced on October 17, 2022 that Qatar will host the 2023 edition of the Asian Cup while India and Saudi Arabia have been shortlisted to host the 2027 edition. Photo: Reuters


The winter games are scheduled to be held in Saudi Arabia's futuristic smart city Neom on the Red Sea, which is currently under construction.


A regional human rights group, ALQST for Human Rights, has asserted that at least 47 members of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia have been either arrested or detained for resisting eviction to make way for Neom.


“The so-called ‘sports washing’ charge…belies a troubling level of ethnocentricity that is seemingly lost on those making it. It suggests that Saudi Arabia is investing billions of dollars into sports primarily to improve its image in the eyes of others–especially the Western world,” said Fahad Nazer, the spokesman of the Saudi embassy in Washington.



The 2030 Saudi World Cup bid will be an important litmus test for both international sports organizations and human rights activists, signaling what can be achieved beyond simply naming, shaming, and bearing witness to human rights abuses.


So far, FIFA just endorsed “Visit Saudi,” the Kingdom's tourism board as a sponsor of the 32-team Women’s World Cup tournament scheduled to be held in New Zealand and Australia this summer, placing it alongside international brands such as Adidas, Coca Cola, and Visa, despite protests by activists and athletes.


Some hold up Saudi Arabia’s recent era of reform as adequate reason to facilitate the elevating kingdom’s place in the global sports arena.


Although there is some logic in honoring the significant progress made by Saudi Arabia in advancing women’s rights—including lifting a ban on women’s driving and promoting women’s social rights and professional opportunities—that logic falters when one considers that the women who campaigned for those rights are behind bars or were released from lengthy prison stays but barred from traveling abroad.


The logic also falters when one considers that Saudi women largely remain subject to the whims of their male guardians, even after the government has lifted some of the guardianship’s restrictions.


In Saudi prisons, female activists are/were in good company as practically anyone who voices criticism ends up behind bars, including women such as Salma al-Shehab and Noura al-Qahtani who were sentenced to 34 and 43 years in prison, respectively, for mere tweets.


These facts raise a fundamentally political question: should international sports associations recognize Saudi Arabia’s progress and help improve the kingdom’s image by awarding hosting rights or endorsing sponsorships, or is this progress not enough in the face of its serious and sustained human rights abuses?


The answer is not a simple yes or no, but there are political implications to whatever decision is made.


Further complicating the Saudi bid is that it is structured as a tricontinental offering with Africa’s Egypt and Europe’s Greece to circumvent standard FIFA practice that seeks to rotate tournaments among regions.


To secure a buy-in by its proposed partners, the kingdom reportedly agreed to foot Egypt and Greece’s infrastructural and other costs in exchange for the right to host most World Cup matches.


For Egypt, the deal is a no-brainer. Egypt gets the reputational and infrastructural benefits even though the country is on the verge of a potential social explosion and economic collapse.


Yet, a war of words between Saudi and Egyptian media in the wake of Saudi finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan’s declaration in January that the kingdom’s development aid would no longer be unconditional inspires little confidence that such a deal will hold.

Saudi Finance Minister, Mohammed al-Jadaan speaks during Saudi 2022 Budget Forum in Riyadh, December 13, 2021. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri


Greek calculations are different, particularly with FIFA introducing a human rights component to the bidding process that requires the group to include due diligence on a bidder’s human rights record and potential hosts to submit a human rights strategy in preparing for hosting the tournament. The implications of such a process have apparently begun to dawn on Greece, especially as a member of the European Union.


Beyond concerns about the spotlight being put on its problematic policy towards migrants, many Greeks question whether they want to be seen to be getting into bed with two of the world’s worst violators of human rights.


The effort to bypass FIFA practice has a precedent.


In its acquisition of English Premier League club Newcastle United, Saudi Arabia and its partners asserted that the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund that Mr. Bin Salman chairs, was distinct from the country’s political leadership.


This month, a US federal judge rejected that notion in a case in which the upstart PIF-backed LIV Golf professional golf tour accuses PGA Tour, the longstanding organizer of the sport's flagship events, of using its monopoly power to squash a nascent rival, in violation of antitrust law.


Judge Susan van Keulen of the US District Court of the Northern District of California rejected an attempt by the PIF and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, to evade turning over information connected to the courtroom battle on the grounds that they enjoyed sovereign immunity as a state institution and official.


H.E. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Managing Director of PIF participated today in the Milken MENA Summit in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Twitter/@PIFSaudi


Going forward from Qatar, the challenge for activists who hope to effect change is how to persuade fans and autocratic regimes to engage with rather than repel their critiques.


Activists’ pressure produced a significant enhancement of worker rights in Qatar and should be taken as a point of departure.


Worker rights may have been low-hanging fruit relative to more sensitive points of criticism, but the campaign to improve the working and living conditions of migrant labor in Qatar frames demonstrates may be achievable when it comes to far more complex, culturally, and politically sensitive issues, such as gender and sexual diversity, that evoke deep-seated passions.


Moreover, the last World Cup indicates what reforms autocracies as well as Muslim-majority states, along with countries in the Global South with significant Christian populations, may entertain; what compromises are possible to improve the well-being of discriminated or disenfranchised groups, even if they fall short of full recognition of rights; and what areas do not lend themselves to compromise.


Political rights, for example, are not particularly subject to compromise. Freedoms of expression, the media, and assembly are indivisible. One either can express oneself and organize, or one cannot—the existence of these rights either exists or it doesn’t.


Worker rights, in contrast, provide numerous avenues for potential reform: the ability to freely change jobs, travel, seek regulatory and legal redress of employers’ abuse; enjoy proper working and living conditions; demand respect of rights; have a minimum wage as a benchmark; and elect worker council representatives, if adequately implemented, significantly improve a worker's immediate circumstances and quality of life.


Activists can also argue that these reforms are beneficial for all involved, as they serve efforts to streamline and diversify economies.


Yet, here too, limits likely exist.


Demands for independent trade unions, the right to strike, and collective bargaining are legitimate and appropriate, yet unlikely to be negotiable, due to the challenge of a autocratic political system, if not regime change. If independent trade unions are allowed, why not political parties and pressure groups? If labor strikes are legal, so should protests and demonstrations. If collective bargaining is a fixture, why should other groups not be able to push for rights collectively?


These are issues that challenge the nature of autocracy. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that; on the contrary. Nevertheless, activists will have to keep in mind that workers are likely to be more concerned about immediate improvements in their working and living conditions than about political and other rights.


A similar logic plays out on socially controversial issues, particularly LGBTQ rights, where government policy is aligned with public sentiment.


With Muslim and Christian populations in the Global South deeply hostile to LGBTQ rights, activists will have to be creative in seeking to change a community’s circumstances. One potential tactic may be to build on the positions of credible, albeit often controversial Muslim scholars, such as Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist politician and thinker, and Salman al Audah, a prominent and controversial cleric who has been languishing for years in a Saudi prison.


The speaker of Tunisia's parliament Rached Ghannouchi speaks with AFP in the capital Tunis, on March 31, 2022 Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images


The two men denounce homosexuality as a sin but deny temporal and religious authorities the right to take punitive action. Instead, they position homosexuality as a sin for which practitioners should be held accountable in a next life.


Theirs’ is a formula that neither legalizes nor legitimizes homosexuality nor removes the stigma. But it does avoid criminalization and significantly enhances the lives of members of the LGBTQ community.


It builds on arrangements in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Turkey, where homosexuality has not been outlawed but remains socially fraught and challenging, as well as Qatar's "don't ask, don't tell" approach during the 2022 World Cup that was rooted in former US President Bill Clinton's attitude towards members of the LGBTQ community in the military.


With Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern autocracies bidding or contemplating bids for mega-sporting events in the next two decades, the name of the game for activists is likely to be exploiting shades of grey.


The better activists get at playing the game, the more difficult it will be for Saudi Arabia and other autocracies to continuously refuse engagement with their critics.


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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