The 2034 footballing World Cup will be held in Saudi Arabia, in what marks the biggest sporting event in this rapidly growing sporting empire.
On 31 October, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that Saudi Arabia would host the 2034 FIFA World Cup. This should come as little surprise to anyone following recent developments across both football and sport in general. The turn of the decade has seen the Saudi government increase funding for sport both in and outside the country as they attempt to improve their public image and diversify their economy.
The controversial decision to include 3 South American nations as ‘centenary hosts’ alongside the joint bid from Spain, Portugal and Morocco for 2030 was a key factor for the success of Saudi Arabia’s proposal. Due to FIFA’s continental host rotation policy, nations from a continent that have just hosted the tournament are excluded from bidding to host its next two editions. This means that, despite hosting just three games out of a possible 104, South American bids for 2034 were completely ruled out, leaving just Asia and Oceania eligible to host. The bidding process for 2034 was opened on 4 October, the same day the hosts for 2030 were announced, with interested parties having just 26 days to submit their bids to FIFA. The Saudi proposal was announced just minutes after the opening of the bidding process and within days, over 70 countries pledged their support for the Saudi bid. Rule changes relaxing stadium and infrastructure requirements, in addition to the favourable bidding process, have cleared the way for Saudi Arabia to host the tournament unopposed.
Football, being the world’s most popular sport, has been prioritised for investment. Saudi Arabia is set to host the Club World Cup in December, the 2027 Asian Cup and multiple editions of the Spanish, Italian and Turkish supercups. The Public Investment Fund—Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund—completed the controversial takeover of English Premier League side Newcastle United in 2021, and has majority shares in Saudi Arabia’s 4 most popular clubs. 2023 saw an influx of elite footballers joining clubs in the Saudi Pro League on enormous wages, reminiscent of 1970s USA and 2010s China. Aside from football, the kingdom has hosted numerous high profile boxing events, created a new golf tournament to rival the PGA Tour (which it has now merged with), established the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Formula 1, and is set to host the 2034 Asian Games. Attracting foreign talent and fans as well as staging some of the world’s most popular sporting events has been seen by many as an attempt to improve the country’s negative public image. The takeover of Newcastle United has proven to be a relatively successful attempt of sportswashing by the Saudi government. Although some supporters’ groups protested against the Saudi takeover, many Newcastle fans were pleased with the new management due to the previous owners’ negligence of the club. Within just 18 months, the club has risen from bottom of the table to its first Champions League appearance since 2003. This rapid success has led some fans to turn a blind eye to the actions of their new owners, as they have brought success to a previously underachieving team.
Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and involvement in conflicts in the surrounding region has contributed massively to the negative perception of the country. Dissidents of the country’s ruling monarchy are punished harshly. For example, 41 Shia Muslims, who are a minority in the country, were charged with terrorism for protesting for increased participation in the government and were killed in a mass execution in 2022. Journalists critical of the regime have been imprisoned in the country, and those in exile have been repeatedly targeted and even assassinated. Despite significant women’s rights reforms taking place since 2017, women’s rights activists are still imprisoned and censored. LGBTQ+ people are given long prison sentences and lashed, and in extreme cases can get the death penalty.
Furthermore, a Saudi led coalition intervened in the Yemeni Civil War in 2015, as part of the larger proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The kingdom has been criticised for its targeting of civilians and aid organisations as well as its naval blockade of the country, which has been judged to have contributed to the cholera epidemic and ongoing famine in Yemen. This conflict has unsurprisingly affected sport. The 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was affected by a missile strike carried out by Yemeni rebels on an oil facility 16km away from the race track during the first practice session, which highlights the safety concerns of hosting such popular sporting events in the country. The Saudi government hopes that people will simply ignore the wide range of human rights violations and safety concerns if it presents itself as a world leader in sport.
So, what’s the point of all this? The government is planning to diversify the country’s economy, as it is currently too reliant on oil. Extraction of this resource accounts for 46% of the country’s GDP. Tourism could help to diversify the economy of the country. Saudi Arabia is already the 2nd most visited country in the Middle East, although a large proportion of that is religious tourism due to the importance of certain sites to Islam. Now, the tourism sector is attempting to attract a wider scope of visitors, and the increasing amount of sports hosted in the country is a key factor that they hope will encourage tourism. Furthermore, the infrastructure built and upgraded for these tournaments will be reused for future events and with more sports being held in the country, this will increase the credibility of Saudi Arabia as a host of major international events.
Sport can be a powerful propaganda tool, and the Saudi government is attempting to utilise it. The FIFA World Cup, and other events hosted by the country, have the ability to change public perception of the country. These are parts of a wider attempt to reduce reliance on oil for government revenue, though whether this will be successful is yet to be seen.