Sportswashing claims “very superficial” – Saudi minister

Saudi Arabia’s sports minister described the “sports laundering” allegations against the country as “very superficial” as he defended Saudi Arabia’s right to host the men’s World Cup.

Speaking to the BBC in Jeddah, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said: “Many of the people who are accusing us of this have not been to Saudi Arabia and have not seen what we are doing.”

Critics say unprecedented sports spending has been used to improve the oil-producing kingdom’s reputation over its human rights record and environmental impact.

But the Saudi government insists the investment will boost the economy, opening it up to tourism and inspiring people to be more active.

In his first interview since it was announced that the country will bid unopposed for the 2034 Men’s World Cup, the minister said:

  • Saudi Arabia was “exploring the possibility” of hosting the tournament in the summer, despite the kingdom’s extreme heat
  • Supported the FIFA process that led to Saudi’s World Cup bid going unchallenged and denied “any lack of transparency”
  • He defended the Saudi Pro League’s £750m summer transfer spending, arguing that “no one has questioned this.” [the Premier League] than they did,” and that he “will definitely have more spectators next year,” after some games had few spectators in attendance
  • Promised the controversy over the treatment of migrant workers in neighboring Qatar would “not be repeated” ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
  • She insisted that “everyone is welcome” at the event, despite concerns from some fans about a country where homosexuality is illegal and women’s rights are limited.

A suitable host?

Saudi Arabia has spent around $5 billion since 2021.

The country’s public investment fund has also launched the breakaway LIV golf series, taken control of four Saudi Pro League clubs and bought Newcastle United.

But activists claim that these huge government investments in sport are being used to distract from long-standing reputational issues such as Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen – a process known as “sports washing.” is known.

Prince Abdulaziz said in a speech in Jeddah, where his country recently hosted both an America’s Cup regatta and an ATP tennis event for the first time and is now preparing to host the FIFA Club World Cup this month The allegations of “sports laundry” are “very superficial”. .

“Twenty million of our population are under 30 years old, so we have to motivate them – we are fulfilling our role of developing sport in the world and being part of the international community,” he said.

Asked whether his country would be a suitable host for the 2034 World Cup, he added: “We have proven that – we have hosted more than 85 global events and delivered at the highest level. We want to attract people to the world through sport. Hopefully people will experience an exceptional World Cup by 2034.”

While activists acknowledge reforms to women’s freedoms in Saudi Arabia in recent years, they also point to a reported increase in the number of executions, the ongoing male guardianship system and the imprisonment of activists for online dissent.

FIFA has been urged to seek commitments to improve human rights before officially confirming a World Cup in Saudi Arabia next year. According to FIFA guidelines, countries bidding to host the event must commit to respecting human rights.

“Every country has room for improvement, no one is perfect. We are aware of this and these events help us to reform for a better future for all,” said Prince Abdulaziz.

Women in Saudi Arabia were only allowed to enter sports stadiums to watch games in 2018. Since then, however, a professional women’s soccer league and a women’s national team have been founded, with more than 70,000 girls now playing regularly.

But last month Jake Daniels, Britain’s only openly gay active professional footballer, told the BBC he would “not feel safe” at the 2034 World Cup.

“Everyone is welcome in the kingdom,” said Prince Adbulaziz. “Like any other nation, we have rules and regulations that everyone should follow and respect. When we come to the UK we respect the rules and regulations whether we believe in them or not. In the 85 events we have had so far, we have had no problems.”

A summer World Cup?

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar took place in November and December

It is widely expected that the 2034 tournament will be held in winter to avoid the country’s extreme summer temperatures such as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

But Prince Abdulaziz said organizers were “definitely looking” at whether it could take place in the summer.

“Why don’t you look at what options there are to do this in the summer?” Whether it’s summer or winter doesn’t matter to us as long as we make sure we do it [deliver] the right atmosphere to host such an event,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is already building three new stadiums for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, but needs to have 14 venues with a capacity of 40,000 or more for the World Cup.

In October, human rights group Amnesty raised concerns about the treatment of migrant workers in the kingdom.

Asked whether there could be similar problems to the workers’ rights controversy at the World Cup in Qatar, Prince Abdulaziz said: “I assure you it will not happen again.”

“We have 10 years to work on this, we have already started in many venues, so we still have plenty of time to implement it at the right time and in the right process… We are already developing the infrastructure… so we are not doing it yet.” It was necessary to build a lot more to host such an event.

Sustainability concerns

But environmental groups have raised concerns about the environmental impact of a 48-team event, pointing to energy needs for cooling systems, water desalination and carbon-intensive infrastructure projects.

Pointing to various initiatives that the Saudi government says are helping to divest from fossil fuels and reduce omissions, Prince Abdulaziz said: “It is our mandate in the Kingdom to ensure that we comply with international regulations …to ensure that we play our role in ensuring that it is environmentally friendly.

He also dismissed criticism that the world’s largest oil exporter is using sport to distract from its sustainability record, saying: “I completely reject that because we take it seriously and think that we are part of this world… and we “We have to play our part.” We have a role to play, and that’s what we’re doing.”

In March, FIFA dropped plans for Saudi Arabia’s tourism board to sponsor the Women’s World Cup after co-hosts Australia and New Zealand and some players reacted to the proposed deal.

Asked about reports that state oil giant Aramco is in talks for a sponsorship deal with Fifa, Prince Abdulaziz said: “Aramco has been open to many sponsors around the world in the sports field and they believe in sports because it is a good platform .” so they can develop and so on… they sponsored Formula 1, they sponsored many events around the world. I don’t understand what the problem is with Fifa – or is it just because it is Fifa?”

The bidding process

Concerns have been raised over Fifa’s accelerated process, which prevented most countries from bidding for the 2034 World Cup and left Saudi Arabia unopposed.

At the time of the announcement, fan group Football Supporters Europe said it was “rolling out the red carpet” for the country.

But Prince Abdulaziz rejected any suggestion that the ruling body had paved the way for his country.

“It’s just a theory,” he said. “We should pay attention to what benefits the sport of football.”

“Everyone was clear about the regulations and no one had any objections to them [the process] So I don’t think there was a lack of transparency at FIFA. It’s just that we were ready for it and others might not be. It’s not our fault.

“As you can see from the announcement of more than 125 associations supporting the Saudi bid… the world also wants us to host in 2034.”

Fifa has said a full assessment of the bids for the 2030 and 2034 World Cups still needs to be completed before all national associations vote on them at their congress next year, and that its rotation policy is helping to grow football.

Saudi Pro League

Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous player to join the Saudi Pro League

Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo became the first big-name player to move to the new-look Saudi Pro League last year. Since then, numerous stars such as Karim Benzema, Neymar, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Neves have followed suit and splashed out £750m on new signings this summer, sending shockwaves across football’s transfer market.

“I think the Premier League did that and that’s how they started. That’s why no one questioned it when they did it,” Prince Abdulaziz said when asked if the spending posed a threat to more established European leagues.

BBC Sport attended the recent Riyadh derby between Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr and his rivals Al-Hilal and, accompanied by representatives from the Ministry of Sport, covered a series of events over several days in Saudi Arabia. The game was played in front of more than 50,000 fans, although numbers numbered only several hundred at some smaller clubs, with an average attendance of less than 9,000.

“They are building blocks… I am sure we will have more visitors next year,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

“Like anywhere else in the world, there are some games that attract much larger viewers than others, but all of our major games to date have attracted record numbers…we broadcast to 147 countries around the world.”

“When we set out to develop the league we never thought we would be able to do it at such a pace, but to see this is really refreshing and really shows how important this is. Our focus is on developing our league to attract the best in the world.”

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