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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Saudi Arabia is set to host the World Cup in 2034: If so, get upset now!

At first glance, it might appear a bit presumptuous to initiate an appeal for indignation over something as seemingly banal as a football tournament that will take place more than ten years from now.

But as a football fan, the images of the World Cup in Qatar are still vivid. And apart from the beautiful game and Lionel Messi's coronation, finally lifting the World Cup trophy at the age of 35, it is the controversy of holding the tournament in a country like Qatar that remains. The reasons why are quite clear: at one end, Qatar’s efforts to protect fundamental human rights were never close to a success; while at the other end, the cartoonesque FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, tirelessly tried to whitewash a tournament that should have never been held in such way.


Even if someone has, if at all, a minimum interest in the sport, it was hard to miss that something was different about this World Cup. There had already been similar discussions in the context of previous World Cups, but the tournament in Qatar brought the political dimension to a new level. And indeed, it is impossible to explain how a small desert state without any football tradition, an authoritarian regime, and a disdain for human rights protection can single-handedly organise one of the most significant sports events in the world.


World Cup in Qatar: The public outcry came too late 

The World Cup to Qatar was awarded in 2010 in an unprecedented double election together with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It was supposed to be the last big payday for outgoing FIFA officials who had demonstrably pocketed millions through their votes in the awarding process. Today, most of them have either been charged, arrested, or are dead.

There was opposition to Doha as a venue from the outset, not least because it was even described as  "unsuitable" by FIFA’s own investigative committee. In 2010, however, the moral compass did not seem to be nearly as strong as it is today, and it was still 12 years before the tournament would take place in the rather vaguely known Gulf state. The general public lacked the foresight to take action against Qatar as a possible venue and the FIFA as a corrupt institution. 

It should be mentioned that some sportswriters and NGOs have continuously drawn attention to abuses over the years, especially the inhumane working conditions of migrant workers. Yet, the media outrage, investigative publications and countless documentaries on the issue came too late to start a movement against this tournament. Even if commercial productions, such as in the Netflix series  “FIFA Uncovered (2022),” have reached a broad audience, showing emotionally how the corrupt system within the FIFA works to award a World Cup to Qatar, they only drew a historical perspective, contemporary powerless. 

For, immediately after the World Cup was officially given to Qatar, all billion-dollar contracts made around the World Cup –between Qatar and FIFA, as well as FIFA and private organisations– put state officials and football decision-makers in a comfortable position to justify participation in the tournament without turning back.

Now, on the 4th of October, it was announced that Saudi Arabia is the only candidate to host the World Cup in 2034. All signs are that the Gulf state will welcome the tournament in 2034, which is set to be awarded at the end of 2024. Should this be a sort of déjà vu for the world’s spectators, actions against the organisation of the World Cup in Saudi Arabia are to be taken now if we want to avoid finding ourselves in the same (or perhaps even worse) situation as the discussions around the World Cup in Qatar. The influential people in football and politics must not be given the opportunity to make things that easy for themselves again.

Saudi Arabia isn’t Qatar

Awarding the World Cup to Saudi Arabia in 20234 would not only be controversial but more a charade, a new level of audacity on the part of Gianni Infantino and his followers.

First of all, even Qatar is far ahead of Saudi Arabia democracy. In fact, according to Amnesty, in the past, “the authorities targeted individuals for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression”. For Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian kingdom ruled by Mohammed Bin Salman and the royal family, in which human rights have no meaning. Although an opening towards liberal values can be observed in recent years, Saudi Arabia has continuously proven to violate human rights. Hence the status quo of the political dimension should automatically rule out awarding a World Cup to this government. One could point to LGBTQ+ rights, public executions (196 in 2022 alone), the execution of  Jamal Khashoggi, or the discrimination of women and girls. 

Human rights should be an essential and primary concern in choosing a host for the World Cup.

However, FIFA does not seem to be bothered by this at all since they are circumventing their own  regulations to make a tournament in Saudi Arabia possible. For, according to the organization’s procedural rules, when awarding the World Cup, it must be ensured that different continental football associations can host the tournament. As Qatar, Saudi Arabia's neighbouring country, is part of the same continental association, other continents would be entitled to host the tournament one after the other.

Thus, for 2026, the tournament has already been awarded to three countries (USA, Mexico, Canada) representing the CONCACAF (North and Central America). But still, the South American, European, and African continental associations had to be fobbed off before a country from the Asian association could host the tournament again. 

To this end, the FIFA created a completely new concept for the 2030 tournament. For the 100th anniversary of the World Cup, 3 matches, out of a total of 104, are to be played in South America (each one in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) before the entire circus travels across the Atlantic to play all remaining matches in Portugal, Spain and Morocco. Voilà, way clear for Saudi Arabia. It also seems hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia submitted its unofficial bid on the same day, 4th October 2023, only a few hours after FIFA's sudden announcement.


Ultimately, there was only one competitor for the award, the Oceanian Association (OFC). After Australia expressed its interest, the FIFA suddenly fast-tracked the hosting by giving a deadline of less than one month to make its bid official. Too little time for a democratic state to find consent and do feasibility studies. The 2034 award will, therefore, most certainly go to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2024 - without any other bidders. Just for comparison, while the Men's World Cup plans extend well into the next decade, the Women's World Cup for 2027 has not yet been awarded.

Someone really can't shake off the impression that the FIFA, for some obscure reason, has the intention to award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup as soon as possible. Insofar it is quite fitting the FIFA, as the British Times reports, has just signed a sponsorship deal with Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, which is expected to bring the non-profit association up to $100 million a year. The contract expires (coincidentally) in 2034.


Football as a propaganda tool - money is secondary

If we now take a contrary stance, someone could dismiss all accusations against a tournament in Saudi Arabia as eurocentric, self-righteous and hypocritical. Even in connection with the World Cup in Qatar, it was mainly northern European countries that had a severe problem with Qatar hosting the World Cup.  What's more, Saudi Arabia does have a football culture. Their national team has qualified seven times for World Cups until now, and after all, the local association SAFF was founded in 1956, being home to its own league since 1976. Furthermore, It can also be interpreted as the next logical step. Saudi Arabia has already won the bid to host the 2027 Asian Cup and the 2029 Asian Winter Games (exactly, Winter Games in a desert state). The biggest sporting event in the world, the World Cup in 2034, is now set to crown Saudi Arabia's sports ambitions.


However, this perception heavily disregards the intentions of the Saudi Arabian government to host these events. The love for sports is by no means essential for hosting major sporting events. Instead, it can be seen as serving solely as a political tool. On the one hand, sportswashing, as in improving Saudi Arabia's image in the world through sports, is taken to an extreme. It enables the royal rulers to present their country propagandistically and thus become a more reputable global player. We can't pretend that this doesn't play a major role in other competitions as well, but the extent to which the sport is used as a propaganda tool here exceeds all previous major tournaments once again.

On the other hand, it is also used for domestic political purposes. Unlike in Qatar, most of the population does not live in wealth. The GNI per capita here is around 27.590 US dollars (2022). Considering the almost infinite financial resources that the royal family has access to and the state fund PIF, one of the most significant investment funds in the world, used to finance international events such as the World Cup, the supposed prosperity of the population appears to be low. It is, therefore, a dominant soft tool for those in power. The young, football-loving country (70% of the population is under 35) is made attractive to its state through such significant events. In return, however, those in power expect not to be questioned. No criticism of the totalitarian regime is allowed. The ban on freedom of expression thus remains in place.

As the world's most popular sport, football is the preferred means of achieving these propagandistic goals. For example, the long-established English club Newcastle United F.C. was purchased by the PIF for £350M in 2021, which acquired well-known new players quickly and is now one of the top clubs in the English league. In addition, billions have been invested in its own Saudi Pro League since last summer. Ageing superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were brought to Saudi Arabia with the prospect of astronomical salaries. But there have also been repeated attempts to lure young world-class players such as Kylian Mbappe to the kingdom with a deal worth €1.1 billion and a rumoured salary of up to €300M.

Of mutual benefit for one another: Mohammed Bin Salman and Gianni Infantino at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022

Thwarting Infantino’s sly game 

Gianni Infantino, the President of the FIFA, has excellent relations with Saudi Arabia. He is the driving force behind the early awarding of the 2034 FIFA World Cup. Although the vote will not take place until the end of this year, he has already publicly declared Saudi Arabia's hosting official on Instagram (perhaps not the most professional way of communication), referring to it as the as "THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH". But this is not surprising, considering Infantino has already become the manifestation of an opportunist and chief lawyer for the hosts during the World Cup in Qatar (“Today I feel….”). Since he cannot be assumed to have a single bone of integrity in his body, one must neither believe in nor appeal to the morality of these officials who enrich themselves through our love for the game and the cultural heritage it is based on. 

And so, a media and social outcry is needed now, as this is the only way to exert pressure on politicians and national associations, who are currently passively supporting this award. Officially, there is still time until the end of this year to do something about it. However, if we wait for it to be decided by an interest-driven elite, it might be too late, and we would be forced once more to choke back and watch a World Cup in a country where it should not reasonably take place at all.

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