World Cup Saudi Arabia 2034: Sports minister defends the right to host the state

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Saudi Arabia’s sports minister says claims of “sports laundering” against the country are “very shallow”, as he defends its right to host the men’s soccer World Cup.

Speaking to the BBC in Jeddah, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said: “Many of the people who accuse us have not been to Saudi, or seen what we are doing.

Critics say unprecedented spending on sports has been used to improve the oil-producing kingdom’s reputation for its human rights record and environmental impact.

But the Saudi government insists that the investment is boosting the economy, opening it up to tourism and encouraging people to be more active.

In his first interview since it emerged that the country was bidding unchallenged for the 2034 men’s World Cup, the minister said:

  • Saudi Arabia said it was “exploring the possibility” of holding the tournament this summer, despite the kingdom’s extreme heat
  • He backed the Fifa process that led to the Saudi bid for the World Cup appearing unchallenged, denying “any lack of transparency”
  • He defended the Saudi Pro League’s £750m summer transfer spending spree, arguing that “no one questioned [the Premier League] when they did it”, and that he was “certainly next year we will have more attendance” after small crowds at some games
  • The row over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers looming ahead of the 2022 World Cup “will not happen again”
  • He called for “everyone to be welcome” at the event, despite the concerns of some fans about a country where homosexuality is illegal and women’s rights are limited.

A suitable host?

Saudi Arabia has invested around £5bn in sport since 2021, when the country’s Crown Prince made it a key part of his strategy to diversify the economy, with several major sporting events brought to the kingdom, including high profile boxing and Formula 1 .

The country’s Public Investment Fund has also launched the bankrupt LIV golf chain, taken control of four Saudi Pro League clubs and bought Newcastle United.

But activists claim that this huge state investment in sports is being used to distract from long-standing reputational issues such as Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi , and the war in Yemen – a process called ‘washing sport’.

Speaking in Jeddah, where his country has recently hosted the America’s Cup regatta and an ATP tennis event for the first time, and is now preparing to host the World Cup Club Fifa this month, Prince Abdulaziz said the allegations of ‘sports washing’ were “very shallow”. .

“Twenty million of our people are under the age of 30, so we need to get them involved – we’re playing our part in developing sport in the world and being part of the international community,” he said.

Asked if his country would be a suitable host for the 2034 World Cup, he said: “We’ve demonstrated that – we’ve hosted more than 85 world events and we’ve delivered at the level highest. world through sports. We hope that by 2034, people will have a fantastic World Cup.”

While activists recognize reforms to women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia in recent years, they also point to reported increase in the number of executionsthe ongoing male protection system and the imprisonment of activists for online dissent.

FIFA is being asked to secure commitments to improve human rights before next year’s Saudi World Cup is formally confirmed. According to FIFA guidelines, countries bidding to host the event must promise to respect human rights.

“Any country has room for improvement, no one is perfect. We admit that and these events help us reform to a better future for everyone,” said 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 women’s national team have been formed, now with over 70,000 girls playing regularly.

However, last month Jake Daniels, the UK’s only openly gay professional footballer, told the BBC that “He wouldn’t feel safe” at the 2034 World Cup.

“Everyone is welcome in the kingdom,” said Prince Adbulaziz. “Like any other country we have rules and regulations that everyone should abide by and respect. When we come to the UK we respect the rules, whether we believe in them or not. Through the 85 events we’ve been to so far, we’ve had no issues.”

Summer World Cup?

Messi will lift the 2022 World Cup
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was held in November and December

The 2034 tournament is widely expected to be held in winter to avoid the country’s extreme summer temperatures, as with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

But Prince Abdulaziz said the organizers were “definitely investigating” whether it could be organized this summer.

“Why don’t you see what opportunities there are to do this summer? Whether it’s summer or winter, it doesn’t matter to us, as long as we make sure [deliver] the right atmosphere to hold an event like this,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is already building three new stadia for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, but it must have 14 venues with capacities of 40,000 or more for the World Cup.

In October, human rights group Amnesty raised concernsexternal link about the treatment of migrant workers in the kingdom.

When asked if there could be similar cases dispute which disrupted the Qatar World Cup over workers’ rights, Prince Abdulaziz said: “I assure you it will not happen again.

“We have 10 years to work on that, we already started in a lot of the centers, so we have a long time to do it at the right time, in the right process… We are about early developing infrastructure… much more needed to be built to host an event like this.”

Sustainability concerns

But environmental groups have expressed concerns about the environmental impact of hosting the 48-team event, pointing to the energy needed for cooling systems, water desalination and carbon-intensive infrastructure projects.

Referring to several initiatives that the Saudi government says are helping it diversify away from fossil fuels and reduce emissions, Prince Abdulaziz said: “It is our mandate in the kingdom to ensure that we keep to the international regulations… our responsibility, to ensure that it is environmentally friendly.”

He also rejected criticism that the world’s biggest oil exporter is using sport to distract from its sustainability record, saying: “I completely reject that because we to take that seriously and think that we are part of this world… part of it and we are doing that.”

In March, Fifa dropped plans for Saudi Arabia’s tourism agency to support the Women’s World Cup following backlash from co-hosts Australia and New Zealand and some players over the proposed deal.

Asked about reports that state-owned oil giant Aramco is in talks about a sponsorship deal with Fifa, Prince Abdulaziz said: “Aramco has been open to many sponsors around the world in sports and they believe in sports because it is a good platform. for them to develop and so on… they have supported Formula One, they have supported many events around the world. I don’t see what the problem is with Fifa – or is it just because it’s Fifa?”

The application process

There have been concerns about Fifa’s fast-track process which has prevented most countries from bidding for the 2034 World Cup, and has led Saudi Arabia to stand unchallenged.

At the time of the announcement, the ‘Football Supporters Europe’ fan group said they were “rolling out the red carpet” for the country.

But Prince Abdulaziz rejected any suggestion that the ruling 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 about the rules, no one objected at a time [the process] so I don’t think there was a lack of transparency from Fifa. It’s just that we were ready to do it and maybe others weren’t. That’s not our fault.

“As you can see from the announcement that more than 125 alliances support the Saudi bid…

Fifa has said a full assessment of bids for the 2030 and 2034 World Cups is yet to be completed before all national associations vote at Congress next year, and said its rotation policy helps by growing the game.

Saudi Pro League

Ronaldo plays in Saudi Arabia
Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous player to join the Saudi Pro League

Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was the first big-name figure to make the switch to the revamped Saudi Pro League last year. Since then a number of stars, such as Karim Benzema, Neymar, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Neves have followed suit, with £750m lost on new signings this summer, sending shockwaves through the transfer market. foot

“I think the Premier League did that and that’s how they started. So no one questioned them when they did it,” said Prince Abdulaziz, when asked if tuberculosis was a 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 several events, along with officials from the Ministry of Sports, for several days in Saudi Arabia. The game has been played in front of more than 50,000 fans, but some smaller clubs have had crowds as low as several hundred, with an average attendance of less than 9,000.

“It’s building blocks… I’m sure we’ll have a bigger presence next year,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

“Like anywhere in the world there are games that attract a lot more audiences than others, but all our big games have attracted the highest numbers to date… we broadcasting to 147 countries worldwide.

“When we set out to develop the league we never thought we would do it as quickly as possible, but it’s really refreshing to see and it really shows how important it is.” We aim to develop our league to attract the best in the world. .”

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