The Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup has been marred by controversies, such as allegations of bid bribery and human rights issues. With Saudi Arabia poised to host the 2034 edition, advocacy organisations are urging FIFA to ensure concrete, legally binding commitments to safeguard human rights. FIFA’s decision to grant the tournament to a country with a questionable human rights track record raises ethical questions.
I n 2010, Qatar was awarded the rights to host the 2022 Fifa men’s World Cup. It marked the culmination of the small, oil-rich gulf nation’s long-term strategy to diversify its economy and strengthen its international standing through investment in sport, culture and tourism.
However, from the moment the hosting rights were awarded until the event’s conclusion in December 2022, the Qatar World Cup was marred by controversies. These controversies included allegations of bid bribery, violations of human rights, and what has come to be known as “sportswashing” – the strategic use of the positive image associated with sport to divert attention away from the less palatable aspects of a nation’s social and political culture.
Qatari officials have consistently denied all allegations of bid bribery levelled at them. However, in 2020, the New York Times released information from a US Department of Justice indictment that revealed details about payments made to five members of Fifa before the 2010 vote of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts.
The New York Times also reported that over half the people involved in the voting process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, including former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, have been accused of wrongdoing.
Qatar’s gulf neighbour, Saudi Arabia, has now been all but confirmed as the host of the 2034 edition of football’s greatest spectacle. This comes after it was left as the sole bidder once the deadline for potential hosts to declare their interest passed on Tuesday October 31. Fifa had restricted the process so only countries from Asia and Oceania could put themselves forward.
Upon learning that the bid process was non-competitive, the Sport & Rights Alliance – a coalition of human rights and anti-corruption organisations, trade unions, fan representatives, athlete survivors groups and players unions – expressed its concern.
In a post on Twitter (now called X), the Alliance said:
“Amid the triviality of extravagant sports events and gestures, activists highlight the stark reality of oppressive conditions in Saudi Arabia.”
It is a country where homosexuality is currently illegal, and women’s rights are restricted by a model of male guardianship. Expressing criticism of the ruling regime can also result in immediate imprisonment or, in some cases, execution.
Losing leverage over human rights
According to Fifa’s own guidelines, countries bidding for the men’s World Cup are required to commit to “respecting internationally recognised human rights”. This means that they must ensure human rights and labour standards are implemented by the bidding member associations, governments and all other entities involved in organising the competitions.
Independent human rights risk assessments are also supposed to be carried out by bidding nations. This was done for the first time in the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged Fifa to ensure that they secure binding human rights agreements from Saudi Arabia in line with Fifa’s own stated policy. However, as Saudi Arabia are the sole bidder left in the race, there are genuine doubts as to how adherence to international standards can be guaranteed.
In effect, the non-competitive bidding process means that Saudi Arabia is likely to have less pressure to set challenging targets around improving its human rights because Fifa has no rival bids.
There were two competing bids in 2026: Morocco and the joint bid from the US, Canada and Mexico. As a result, each had to take their human rights risk assessments seriously.
Saudi Arabia has until July 2024 to submit its full bid. And Fifa has announced that the bid will need to adhere to all bid requirements, including those related to human rights.
But the estimated US$10 billion (£8.1 billion) on offer to Fifa from a tournament hosted in Saudi Arabia appears too lucrative to risk jeopardising it.
How did we get here?
The fact that Saudi Arabia is on course to host football’s flagship event is no great surprise. Since 2016, the Saudi ruling family has been building towards realising their Saudi Vision 2030.
As part of this vision, they have committed to bid for, and deliver, a series of spectacular sporting and cultural events – several of which have already happened. These events include football’s 2023 Club World Cup, Formula One, the LIV Golf Series, tennis and boxing.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund also acquired English top-flight football club Newcastle United in 2021. And developments within the Saudi Professional League (the highest division of football in the Saudi league system) have attracted global superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, who both moved for substantial sums of money.
Saudi Arabia has disrupted the sports event market by making significant financial investments to showcase their ability to host international events while also wooing influential sporting figures like Tyson Fury to openly support the nation’s political and cultural traditions.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even said:
“If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing. I don’t care … I’m aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that 1.5%.”
Fifa appears willing to award its premiere football tournament to a nation with a dubious human rights record, despite being outwardly committed to anti-discrimination in all other aspects of its work. Yet again it is left to advocacy organisations to lobby for ethical mega events while governments and sporting federations observe from the sidelines.
In response to this article, a Fifa spokesperson said that the hosts of the upcoming 2034 World Cup will have to be confirmed by the Fifa Congress in 2024 following “due process”. And that bidding regulations and hosting requirements were approved by the Fifa Council – made of 37 elected members from all around the world. Fifa said it engaged on “all matters” regarding human rights with “a wide range of stakeholders in the bidding countries”, and all relevant reports will be made available on FIFA.com.