By James M. Dorsey
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At first glance, a potential bid by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s worst human rights violators, together with Greece, to host the 2030 World Cup sounds like an invitation to a perfect public relations fiasco.
That is undoubtedly true if one looks at Qatar three months before its World Cup kicks off in November.
Coverage of the Qatar World Cup in independent media remains harshly critical of the Gulf state’s final preparations for the tournament and migrant worker and human rights record, despite significant legal and material reforms.
Moreover, human rights groups continue to confront Qatar with legitimate demands such as an improved compensation system for workers who suffered serious harm, including death, injury, and wage theft.
Even so, Qatar’s rough public relations ride over the last 12 years since it won in late 2010 its World Cup hosting rights, despite having been responsive to criticism, may prove to have been mild compared to what likely awaits Saudi Arabia and Egypt, if and when they submit a formal bid to FIFA, the world soccer governance body. Greece, too is likely to be taken to task for partnering with the two autocracies.
Saudi Arabia has wanted to host a World Cup for some time as part of a concerted effort to establish itself as a regional sports hub, eclipsing Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Sports is one pillar of a larger endeavour to position the kingdom as the Middle East’s commercial and political centre of gravity. Moreover, as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, Saudi Arabia is already a major religious point of reference.
The sports effort also aims to boost Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s creation of an entertainment sector that caters to youth aspirations, contributes to the diversification of the country’s oil export-based economy, and helps project the kingdom as forward-looking and cutting-edge rather than secretive and ultra-conservative as it was perceived for much of its existence.
By partnering with Greece and Egypt, Saudi Arabia hopes to enhance its chances of winning the bid in a competition that is likely to be dominated by multi-country proposals. The bid’s strength is that it would be tri-continental, Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Other potential contending partnerships include Spain and Portugal; England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Wales; a North African combination of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria; and a joint South American effort by Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay. Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia have also expressed interest in banding together.
Partnering could allow Saudi Arabia to circumvent FIFA’s likely hesitancy to award the tournament to a Middle Eastern country as sole host for the second time in a decade.
The potential alliance with Egypt and Greece follows an earlier apparently failed attempt to team up with Italy for a World Cup bid.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to risk the kind of scrutiny that Qatar was exposed to is rooted in a degree of hubris on the part of Mr. Bin Salman and an evaluation of the Qatari experience.
Mr. Bin Salman has been encouraged by the willingness of leaders like US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to put behind them the unresolved 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the arrest of scores on often flimsy charges and welcome the crown prince back into the international fold.
By the same token, Mr. Bin Salman has nothing to fear from non-democratic members of the international community like China and Russia and much of the Global South that either sit in glasshouses, do not want to align themselves with US and European lip service to the defence of human rights, or opportunistically don’t want to get on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi hubris was evident in this month’s sentencing of 34-year-old Leeds University PhD candidate Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two, to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting dissidents and activists on Twitter.
Mr. Bin Salman’s willingness to shoulder the risk is likely to be rooted in an analysis of Qatar’s experience that suggests that, on balance, the Gulf state’s hosting of the World Cup will prove to be a success, despite continued negative press in Western media, provided that it pulls off the tournament without significant glitches.
However, Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s human rights records are far more egregious than Qatar’s, which is hardly commendable by any measure.
Like the kingdom and Egypt, Qatar is an autocracy with a legal infrastructure that fortifies the emir as the country’s absolute ruler. Like the potential 2030 World Cup bidders, Qatar lacks freedom of the press and assembly, outlaws extra-marital sex, and refuses to recognize LGBT rights.
But unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Qatar’s jails are not populated by political prisoners or offenders of anti-LGBT laws. Human rights groups estimate that Egypt keeps 60,000 political prisoners behind bars.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which has enhanced the rights and opportunities of at least some women, eased gender segregation, and lifted bans on modern entertainment such as music, dancing, and cinema. have often targeted LGBT communities for domestic political gain.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly charged that Egyptian authorities “arbitrarily arrest” LGBT people and “detain them in inhuman conditions, systematically subject them to ill-treatment including torture, and often incite fellow inmates to abuse them.
Going to extremes, Saudi Arabia, amid a push to encourage tourism, launched “rainbow raids” in late 2021 on shops selling children’s toys and accessories.
Authorities focused on clothing and toys, including hair clips, pop-its, t-shirts, bows, skirts, hats, and colouring pencils “that contradict the Islamic faith and public morals and promote homosexual colours that target the younger generation,” according to a commerce ministry official.
Earlier, the kingdom banned Lightyear, a Disney and Pixar animated production, because of a same-sex kiss scene, and Disney’s Doctor Strange in the Universe of Madness, in which one character refers to her “two mums.”
The litany of Saudi violations of fundamental rights includes a ban on non-Muslim houses of worship even though the kingdom has recently emphasized inter-faith dialogue and welcomed Jewish visitors, including those with a double nationality of which one is Israeli, as well as Christian religious leaders.
As a result, the headwinds a bid involving Saudi Arabia and Egypt is likely to encounter could make Qatar’s experience look like a cakewalk.
Qatar has demonstrated a degree of dexterity in dealing with its World Cup critics, a quality that the Saudi crown prince and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have yet to exhibit.
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 of Middle East Soccer