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February 28, 2023 11:35 am

Saudi Sports Bids Are Unlikely to Lead to Meaningful Change

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avatar by James M. Dorsey


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Even before it officially launched, Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup is on thin ice.

The bid suggests that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is determined to do whatever it takes to become a dominant force in international sports. However, the hubris underlying the approach, rooted in a belief that there is little that money cannot buy, may be the kingdom’s Achilles Heel.

Saudi Arabia has good reason to believe that it is on a roll. One of the world’s foremost oil producers, Saudi oil is in demand as Europe reduces its dependency on Russian product in the wake of the Ukraine war. Moreover, countries and corporations across the globe are eager to cash in on opportunities generated by MBS’ mega-projects and plans to diversify the Saudi economy.

For the Saudi 2030 bid, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup late last year is likely an important case study. Qatar turned its management of the tournament into a success story. Qatar reaped the reputational benefits associated with the tournament, despite the often strong, prolonged, and, at times, Islamophobic criticism of its migrant labor regime and human rights record.

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Human rights and other activists kicked off their campaign for reforms in Qatar immediately after the December 2010 awarding of the 2022 hosting rights by world soccer body FIFA, and have not taken their eye off the ball since.

However, at best, they made a small dent in the reputational benefits reaped by Qatar.

Fans poured into the Gulf state for matches in a tournament that was perceived as one of the most exhilarating in World Cup history, despite the high cost of tickets and accommodation, qualms about migrant rights, concerns about LGBTQ safety, and restrictions on the consumption of alcohol.

Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia hopes to cash in on the Gulf’s growing influence in international sports. Already, the heads of the Saudi and Qatari soccer associations — Yasser Almisehal and Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Thani — have been elected to FIFA’s 37-member council and main decision-making body.

While it is the FIFA congress rather than the council that awards hosting rights, it does put Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the heart of Asian and global football politics.

Even so, Saudi hubris means that the kingdom, unlike Qatar, is unlikely to engage with its critics and adopt some reforms, including changes to its labor laws and a more laissez-faire attitude towards LGBTQ fans attending a tournament. Add in Saudi Arabia’s case, an unrelenting crackdown on freedom of expression far harsher than Qatari restrictions.

That was evident in a recent decision by a Saudi appeals court to extend the prison sentence of 72-year-old Saudi-American dual national Saad Ibrahim Almadi that amounted to a public snub to the United States, after the US State Department privately attempted to intervene on Almadi’s behalf.

Almadi was arrested by Saudi authorities in 2021 for a series of critical tweets he posted while in the United States, and has allegedly been kept in sub-standard conditions since. Almadi’s fate suggests that US efforts to achieve human rights results in the kingdom through private diplomacy has not worked. In turn, that raises the question whether awarding Saudi Arabia mega-event hosting rights would produce a better outcome.

MBS appears to believe that he has a free pass — or at least more leeway — regarding Saudi Arabia’s troubled human rights record, which ranges from the imprisonment of critics to the doubling of the number of executions in the Kingdom since the crown prince came to office, as well as the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

When considered alongside Saudi efforts to entrench the kingdom in the global sports arena, such actions necessarily challenge the self-constructed, fictional narrative in which global sports executives and governments assert that sports and politics are separate.

In the real world, sports and politics are fundamentally intertwined, especially when it comes to granting or rejecting a hosting bid. At the core of these bid decisions is the determination that a potential host country is either representative of the values of the international sports organization or not, a determination that is intrinsically political.

Although sports organizations may wish to ignore this reality, thereby absolving themselves of the need for oversight, the connection between sports and politics is only becoming more obvious as time goes on.

The Saudi World Cup bid comes on the back of the kingdom securing hosting rights for the Asian Football Confederation’s 2027 AFC Cup and the Olympic Council of Asia’s 2029 Asian Winter Games. The winter games are scheduled to be held in Saudi Arabia’s futuristic smart city Neom on the Red Sea, which is currently under construction. A regional human rights group, ALQST for Human Rights, has asserted that at least 47 members of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia have been either arrested or detained for resisting eviction to make way for Neom.

The 2030 Saudi World Cup bid will be an important litmus test for both international sports organizations and human rights activists, signaling what can be achieved beyond simply naming, shaming, and bearing witness to human rights abuses.

Some hold up Saudi Arabia’s recent era of reform as adequate reason to facilitate the elevating kingdom’s place in the global sports arena.

Although there is some logic in honoring the significant progress made by Saudi Arabia in advancing women’s rights — including lifting a ban on women’s driving and promoting women’s social rights and professional opportunities — that logic falters when one considers that some women who campaigned for those rights are behind bars or were released from lengthy prison stays but barred from traveling abroad. The logic also falters when one considers that Saudi women largely remain subject to the whims of their male guardians, even after the government has lifted some of the guardianship’s restrictions.

In Saudi prisons, female activists are in good company, as practically anyone who voices criticism ends up behind bars, including women such as Salma al-Shehab and Noura al-Qahtani, who were sentenced to 34 and 43 years in prison, respectively, for mere tweets.

Further complicating the Saudi bid is that it is structured as a tricontinental offering with Africa’s Egypt and Europe’s Greece to circumvent standard FIFA practice that seeks to rotate tournaments among regions.

To secure a buy-in by its proposed partners, the kingdom reportedly agreed to foot Egypt and Greece’s infrastructural and other costs in exchange for the right to host most World Cup matches.

For Egypt, the deal is a no-brainer. Egypt gets the reputational and infrastructural benefits even though the country is on the verge of a potential social explosion and economic collapse. Greek calculations are different, particularly with FIFA introducing a human rights component to the bidding process that requires the group to include due diligence on a bidder’s human rights record and potential hosts to submit a human rights strategy in preparing for hosting the tournament. The implications of such a process have apparently begun to dawn on Greece, especially as a member of the European Union.

Beyond concerns about the spotlight being put on its problematic policy towards migrants, many Greeks question whether they want to be seen to be getting into bed with two of the world’s worst violators of human rights.

Going forward from Qatar, the challenge for activists who hope to effect change is how to persuade fans and autocratic regimes to engage with rather than repel their critiques. Activists’ pressure produced a significant enhancement of worker rights in Qatar and should be taken as a point of departure.

Worker rights may have been low-hanging fruit relative to more sensitive points of criticism, but the campaign to improve the working and living conditions of migrant labor in Qatar frames demonstrates may be achievable when it comes to far more complex, culturally, and politically sensitive issues, such as gender and sexual diversity, that evoke deep-seated passions.

Moreover, the last World Cup indicates what reforms autocracies as well as Muslim-majority states, along with countries in the Global South with significant Christian populations, may entertain.

Political rights, for example, are not particularly subject to compromise. Freedoms of expression, the media, and assembly are indivisible. One either can express oneself and organize, or one cannot — the existence of these rights either exists or it doesn’t.

Worker rights, in contrast, provide numerous avenues for potential reform: the ability to freely change jobs, travel, seek regulatory and legal redress of employers’ abuse; enjoy proper working and living conditions; demand respect of rights; have a minimum wage as a benchmark; and elect worker council representatives, if adequately implemented, significantly improve a worker’s immediate circumstances and quality of life.

Demands for independent trade unions, the right to strike, and collective bargaining are legitimate and appropriate, yet unlikely to be negotiable, due to the challenge of an autocratic political system.

A similar logic plays out on socially controversial issues, particularly LGBTQ rights, where government policy is aligned with public sentiment. With Muslim and Christian populations in the Global South deeply hostile to LGBTQ rights, activists will have to be creative in seeking to change a community’s circumstances. One potential tactic may be to build on the positions of credible, albeit often controversial Muslim scholars, such as Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist politician and thinker, and Salman al Audah, a prominent and controversial cleric who has been languishing for years in a Saudi prison.

The two men denounce homosexuality as a sin but deny temporal and religious authorities the right to take punitive action. Instead, they position homosexuality as a sin for which practitioners should be held accountable in a next life.

With Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern autocracies bidding or contemplating bids for mega-sporting events in the next two decades, the name of the game for activists is likely to be exploiting shades of grey.

The better activists get at playing the game, the more difficult it will be for Saudi Arabia and other autocracies to continuously refuse engagement with their critics.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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