FIFA under fire over proposed Saudi state tourist board sponsorship of WWC 2023

February 2 – On the same day that Saudi Arabia were confirmed as hosts of the 2027 Asian Cup, the Arab Kingdom faced criticism over rumours of the country’s tourism body’s sponsorship of the 2023 Women’s World Cup by human rights groups, who called it “a textbook case of sportswashing”.

“It is a shocking disregard of the suffering and ongoing repression of courageous women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, to award the Saudi state tourism company sponsorship of the 2023 Women’s World Cup,” said Human Right Watch’s Minky Worden.

“It is worth remembering that, as recently as 2018, women and girls in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to play sport in schools – or even to watch sports in stadiums.

“Instead of sportswashing with sponsorships to attempt to rehabilitate its global image, it would be far better for Saudi Arabia to undertake fundamental human rights reforms, including to uphold basic rights for women and girls.”

Saudi Arabia has increasingly deployed sports and in particular football to present a different face of the Kingdom, but critics have pointed at the country’s poor human rights records as well as discriminatory treatment of women. In Saudi Arabia, male guardians still have a sizeable say over what women are allowed to do.

The new corporate marriage between FIFA and Saudi Arabia (still to be officially confirmed) left organisers in Australia and New Zealand bewildered. They had been blindsided from a commercial partnership with repercussions for this summer’s tournament.

“We are very disappointed that Football Australia were not consulted on this matter prior to any decision being made,” a spokeswoman for Football Australia said in a statement.

The co-hosts “have jointly written to FIFA to urgently clarify the situation,” added Football Australia.

Nikita White, an Amnesty Australia campaigner, criticised Saudi authorities’ human rights record, calling the sponsorship move a “textbook case of sportswashing”.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia have cultivated a close relationship with FIFA president Gianni Infantino. The Saudis were among the biggest investors in a consortium that bid for two FIFA competitions to the tune of $25 billion. SAFF also backed Infantino’s plans for a biennial World Cup.

The sponsorship furore arose at the same time the Saudis were enjoying a good day at the annual congress of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), as they took more steps towards being at the centre of the Asian regions football, rather than being something of a pariah over its previous backing of the piracy of sports rights.

The Saudis were confirmed as hosts for the 2027 Asian Cup, while the president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), Yasser Al Misehal, was elected to the FIFA Council.

In their presentation to the AFC Congress on their candidature for hosting and their ambition to host the biggest and best edition of the Asian Cup to date, they also went to lengths to explain that the country was evolving rapidly with football very much at the forefront, including major investment in the women’s game professionally and at grassroots levels.

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