Saudi Arabia faces human rights scrutiny as sole bidder for 2034 World Cup

Saudi Arabia has been confirmed as the only candidate to host the 2034 men’s World Cup, sparking concerns over the human rights situation in the kingdom and the lack of transparency in the bidding process.

The deadline for expressing interest in hosting the 2034 World Cup was unexpectedly brought forward by FIFA to 4pm GMT on Tuesday, October 31, 2023. Australia, which had previously expressed its intention to bid for the event, decided to withdraw its candidacy and focus on other tournaments. This left Saudi Arabia as the sole bidder for the quadrennial event, which will be the second World Cup in the Gulf region within 12 years, after Qatar hosted it in 2022.

Saudi Arabia faces human rights scrutiny as sole bidder for 2034 World Cup
Saudi Arabia faces human rights scrutiny as sole bidder for 2034 World Cup

Australia’s decision was influenced by several factors, including the uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial costs of hosting a mega-event, and the geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. Australia also faced criticism from human rights groups for considering a joint bid with Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of violating international law and human rights standards.

Saudi Arabia pledges to meet FIFA’s human rights requirements

Saudi Arabia, which has been investing heavily in sports and entertainment as part of its Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy and improve its image, has pledged to meet FIFA’s human rights requirements and deliver a “sustainable and inclusive” World Cup. FIFA expects any host country to comply with the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which cover issues such as workers’ rights, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination.

Saudi Arabia’s bid document states that it has identified and addressed potential human rights risks associated with hosting the World Cup, and that it will work with FIFA and other stakeholders to ensure that the event is conducted in a “responsible and respectful manner”. The document also highlights Saudi Arabia’s reforms and initiatives in areas such as women’s empowerment, environmental protection, and social development.

Human rights groups urge FIFA to hold Saudi Arabia accountable

However, human rights groups have expressed doubts over Saudi Arabia’s commitments and called on FIFA to hold the kingdom accountable for its actions. They have pointed out that Saudi Arabia has a poor record of respecting human rights, especially those of women, minorities, activists, journalists, and dissidents. They have also raised concerns over Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen, which has caused a humanitarian crisis and widespread violations of international law.

Amnesty International, one of the members of the Sport and Rights Alliance (SRA), a coalition of human rights organizations, urged FIFA to pull the plug on Saudi Arabia’s bid if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed. “Human rights commitments must be agreed with potential hosts before final decisions on holding the tournaments are made,” Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice, said. “Fifa must now make clear how it expects hosts to comply with its human rights policies. It must also be prepared to halt the bidding process if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed.”

Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, another member of the SRA, also called on FIFA to be rigorous in its enforcement of its expressed principles. “Fifa should not award this prestigious tournament to a country that jails peaceful critics, discriminates against women, represses minorities, and wages a brutal war on civilians in Yemen,” Worden said. “Fifa should use its leverage to press Saudi Arabia to end these abuses and uphold its own human rights policy.”

FIFA to announce host country in December

FIFA is expected to announce the host country for the 2034 World Cup at its congress in December 2023. The decision will be based on an evaluation report prepared by FIFA’s administration, which will assess Saudi Arabia’s bid against various criteria, including technical aspects, infrastructure, sustainability, human rights, and legal matters. FIFA has stated that it will “constructively engage with relevant authorities and other stakeholders and make every effort to uphold its international human rights responsibilities”.

The 2034 World Cup will be the first one to feature 48 teams instead of 32, as decided by FIFA in 2017. The tournament will also mark the centenary of the first World Cup, which was held in Uruguay in 1930.

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