Saudi Arabia’s Sports Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, has defended his country’s bid to host the men’s football World Cup amid accusations of “sportswashing.” In an interview with the BBC in Jeddah, Prince Abdulaziz addressed concerns regarding human rights, environmental impact, and the perceived use of sports investment to bolster the nation’s image.
The minister dismissed claims of “sportswashing” as “very shallow,” emphasising that the significant investment in sports is aimed at engaging the country’s young population, promoting economic growth, and encouraging an active lifestyle. Critics argue that Saudi Arabia’s vast spending on sports is an attempt to divert attention from ongoing human rights issues, including the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has invested around £5bn in sports since 2021, hosting major events such as boxing and Formula 1. The Public Investment Fund has also taken control of several sports entities, including the recent purchase of Newcastle United. The country’s bid for the 2034 men’s World Cup emerged unopposed, raising concerns about the fast-tracked FIFA process.
Prince Abdulaziz expressed confidence in Saudi Arabia’s ability to host the 2034 World Cup, highlighting the successful delivery of over 85 global events. He defended the country’s commitment to developing sports, stating that accusations of ‘sportswashing’ were unfounded.
The minister addressed concerns about the treatment of migrant workers, pledging that the issues that plagued Qatar’s World Cup would not be repeated. He also welcomed everyone to the event, despite concerns about the country’s stance on homosexuality and women’s rights.
Regarding the potential environmental impact of hosting a 48-team World Cup, Prince Abdulaziz assured that the country is committed to eco-friendly practices and adhering to international regulations. He rejected claims that Saudi Arabia is using sports to distract from sustainability issues, emphasising the nation’s role in global initiatives.
In response to questions about hosting the World Cup in the extreme summer heat, Prince Abdulaziz revealed that the possibility of a summer tournament is being studied. He emphasised the country’s readiness to host the event, showcasing its capability through the successful hosting of numerous global events.
Critics argue that the extensive sports investment is intended to distract from ongoing human rights concerns, but the minister defended Saudi Arabia’s commitment to reforms. He highlighted the creation of a professional women’s football league and a national women’s team, acknowledging that there is room for improvement.
The interview touched on the £750m summer transfer spending spree in the Saudi Pro League, drawing parallels with the Premier League’s spending. Prince Abdulaziz dismissed concerns and expressed confidence that larger attendance would follow.
As Saudi Arabia moves forward with its bid for the 2034 World Cup, the debate around the nation’s suitability as a host continues, with FIFA expected to evaluate human rights commitments before making a final decision.