Don't be surprised by the 2034 World Cup in Saudi Arabia
The prospect of Saudi Arabia hosting the 2034 World Cup has sparked intense controversy, given the kingdom's questionable human rights record. However, Saudi Arabia's growing influence and ambition in the world of sports made their bid to host the event less surprising.
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The country has invested unprecedented amounts in recent years to boost its presence across different sports - like the rebel LIV golf series that has turned the golf world upside down. Saudi Arabia has also started hosting major boxing matches and sent shockwaves through football's transfer market.
The frequent meetings between FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Saudi's Crown Prince in recent times were another hint at the kingdom's rising clout within football's governing body and its aspiration to host the World Cup.
While Saudi Arabia argues its bid will help modernize the country, grow the game, inspire its youth, boost tourism and diversify the economy, critics see it as «sportswashing» to gloss over human rights abuses. These include restrictions on women's rights, limits on free speech, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the kingdom's role in the Yemen conflict.
FIFA made some controversial changes to the 2034 World Cup bidding process that smoothed Saudi Arabia's path to being named host. This included bringing forward the bidding timeline by 3 years and relaxing stadium capacity requirements - now needing just 4 established venues rather than 7.
FIFA also recently awarded the 2030 World Cup jointly to Europe, Africa and South America. This ruled those continents out of bidding for 2034 under FIFA's location rotation policy, further clearing the way for Saudi Arabia as the sole viable Asian bidder.
Some stakeholders like the World Leagues Forum have accused FIFA of inadequate consultation and transparency around decisions impacting the global football calendar. Player and fan group representatives have also questioned the bidding process.
If ultimately awarded to Saudi Arabia as anticipated, it would be the second World Cup in the Middle East in just 12 years after Qatar 2022. This rapid shift of power and influence toward oil-rich nations like Qatar and Saudi was unthinkable not so long ago.
The price of value
Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia currently bans same-sex relationships, concerning many LGBTQ fans. Possible player protests and talk of country boycotts could emerge like was seen at the Qatar World Cup.
FIFA insists human rights remain an integral part of its bidding process and host country requirements. However, it faces accusations of ignoring its own rules and criteria when commercial interests and bidding country influence come into play.
Some argue exposure from hosting the World Cup could accelerate reforms and modernization in Saudi Arabia. But critics fear money and business interests still trump human rights considerations in many of FIFA's decisions.
For now, Saudi Arabia must try to convince the many doubters in the 11 years leading up to 2034. Controversy around its bid seems certain to continue in the meantime, as critics question the integrity of the process.
The kingdom authorities and FIFA leaders will likely defend themselves against what they see as hypocrisy and unfair criticism. But many will continue to raise concerns about the message sent and precedent set by awarding the World Cup to Saudi Arabia given its human rights track record.