The prospect of a World Cup in Saudi Arabia has long been anticipated, with the country’s unprecedented investment in sport over recent years always seemingly intended to lead to this moment.
No-one who has been paying attention to the way that the country has turned the world of golf upside down through the rebel LIV Series, or started to dominate the hosting of top boxing, or sent shockwaves through football’s international transfer market, can be that surprised.
And yet, despite the staggering level of Saudi ambition in sport, the idea of a World Cup in the kingdom will still shock many.
Now that the country is all but guaranteed to be staging the tournament in 11 years’ time, it has the potential to be even more controversial than Qatar’s hosting last year; with concerns ranging from human rights issues, and Fifa’s handling of the bidding process, to the calendar disruption and impact on player welfare due to what is likely to be another winter World Cup because of extreme summer temperatures.
In fact, with an expanded 48-team format, the level of disruption could be even greater than for Qatar 2022, along with the requirement for significant infrastructure construction, intensifying sustainability concerns.
Many critics will see this as the ultimate expression of ‘sportswashing’ – a form of soft power – by the biggest exporter of oil in the world – a country where there are grave concerns over women’s rights abuses, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the restriction of free speech, the continued use of the death penalty, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and scrutiny over the country’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen.
The Saudi authorities deny this, insisting their bid is designed to help modernise the country, to grow the game, inspire a youthful population, boost tourism, diversify the economy before the arrival of a post-oil world, and be a unifying force.
They point to the progress made in women’s football for instance, and argue this is a natural next step after successfully hosting many events across multiple sports, establishing the Saudi Pro League as a footballing force, purchasing Newcastle United, and preparing to stage the Club World Cup this winter, along with the AFC Asian Cup in 2027.
But whatever the true motive of Saudi Arabia’s rulers, its emergence as the one bidder for 2034 will intensify scrutiny on Fifa’s processes and judgement, with some observers voicing concerns that this outcome had almost been engineered as an effective fait accompli in a deal lacking transparency and accountability.
First there was Fifa’s shock announcement earlier this month, bringing forward the bidding process for 2034 by three years when decreeing that the host country must come from either Asia or Oceania, and giving just 26 days for bids to be declared.
This followed its approval of the 2030 tournament being given jointly to the continents of Europe, Africa and South America, despite the dismay of environmental campaigners, thereby ruling them out of bidding for 2034 under Fifa’s rotation policy.
Then – within minutes – came the Saudis’ formal announcement of their bid, swiftly followed by the backing of the Asian Football Confederation.
In another move seen by some as being designed to help the Saudis, Fifa then relaxed its rules around the construction of new stadiums, with bidders now needing just four established venues (rather than the current seven).
The fact that Australia has now decided not to bid will also raise concerns that they knew taking on the Saudis would have been futile.
Fifa – if it had held a news conference and taken questions following its announcement earlier this month – would probably have suggested that this method of ‘anointing’ hosts via uncontested bids – is preferable to the past, when years-long contests between many countries were vulnerable to the threat of vote-swapping, bribery and corruption.
But the way that this process has seemed to pave the way for the Saudis will leave many uneasy.
In March, the World Leagues Forum – which represents domestic leagues around the world – expressed its “concern” over what it claimed was Fifa’s lack of consultation over the global football calendar including expanding the 2026 men’s World Cup and the new versions of the Club World Cup.
Its mood – along with that of other stakeholders such as player and fan representatives – is unlikely to have been improved by the way decisions have been taken since.
Human Rights Watch has also accused Fifa of ignoring its own rules, saying: “The possibility that Fifa could award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup despite its appalling human rights record and closed door to any monitoring exposes Fifa’s commitments to human rights as a sham.”
Fifa has declined to comment, but privately insists that human rights remain an integral part of the bidding process. Certainly Saudi Arabia will be far from the only controversial host of a sporting mega-event in recent years.
And what is clear is that this underlines the extraordinary shift in sporting power towards the Middle East. Up until relatively recently, the idea of tiny Qatar and neighbouring Saudi Arabia hosting two World Cups within the space of just 12 years would have have been inconceivable to most. But given these countries’ wealth and Fifa’s approach under president Gianni Infantino, anything now seems possible.
The Saudis, meanwhile, will continue to defend themselves against what they see as hypocrisy, pointing to the trade that many Western countries seem happy to do with them, and hinting at ignorance, as suggested recently by boxer Tyson Fury after he fought in Riyadh.
The authorities will draw comparisons with the way that Qatar, despite so much criticism, managed to stage a World Cup deemed by many who attended to be a success.
And others will argue that the media exposure accompanying the build-up to the World Cup could help accelerate reforms – as suggested by Jordan Henderson recently when responding to the intense criticism over his move to the Saudi Pro League.
Many others, however, will fear such a view is unrealistic, and will be dismayed at the prospect of Saudi Arabia 2034, concluding that this represents the continued sidelining of human rights, and the wishes of many fans, as important considerations when the hosting of such events is determined.
The Saudi authorities and Fifa now have 11 years to try to convince the doubters, but the scrutiny is highly unlikely to fade.