Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch and oversees the organization’s work on human rights and sports.
In 2010, when FIFA announced that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar, there was an outcry over that country’s human rights record. Now, soccer’s governing body is considering expanding the World Cup to a country with an even more alarming human rights record: Saudi Arabia.
The prospect of Saudi Arabia co-hosting the world’s most-watched sporting event has become a real possibility after FIFA president Gianni Infantino made clear that he is keen to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams. That would mean current host Qatar — which lacks the infrastructure for an expanded tournament — would have to share hosting rights with a Gulf neighbor.
A FIFA feasibility study published in March considered Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as potential co-hosts. The Associated Press reported that the countries receiving serious consideration were Kuwait and Oman, with the assumption that the harsh isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain would prevent them from hosting. But Oman’s foreign affairs minister and Kuwait’s football association head have both expressed reluctance to host because of logistical challenges.
Given the tournament’s stadium seating-capacity requirements, Saudi Arabia — which has two stadiums with more than 60,000 seats — is the most serious candidate left. The final vote to award expanded hosting rights is scheduled to take place at the 69th FIFA Congress in Paris on June 5.
FIFA’s consideration of Saudi Arabia stands in stark contrast to the organization’s claims that human rights are a key part of its values and the rules of the game. Under pressure from fans, activists and sponsors, FIFA has incorporated human rights since 2016, when it adopted the U.N. Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and enshrined its responsibility to respect human rights in Article 3 of the FIFA Statutes. FIFA set up an independent Human Rights Advisory Board, employed human rights staff, set up a complaints mechanism for human rights defenders, and in 2017, adopted a landmark human rights policy stating that “human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials.”
These are global standards that Saudi Arabia has shown no interest in meeting.
Today, a Saudi-led coalition is waging a brutal war in Yemen, reportedly conducting scores of unlawful attacks, restricting the flow of lifesaving goods and exacerbating a humanitarian crisis.
Same-sex relations are criminalized in Saudi Arabia, and punishments include the death penalty and whipping.
The country has no press freedom, a core requirement for would-be World Cup hosts. Last October, Saudi agents murdered and dismembered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who had been critical of the Saudi government.
And even now, Saudi Arabia enforces a repressive “male guardianship” system, forcing women to have consent from a male family member for travel, marriage or even obtaining a passport. Saudi authorities have jailed many of the country’s leading women’s rights activists, some of whom were reportedly tortured. At least 10 are on trial on charges almost entirely related to their peaceful activism. Until January 2018, Saudi Arabia banned women from even watching soccer in stadiums. The ban has been lifted, but there are still reports that women have not been allowed in unless accompanied by a male guardian.
FIFA’s new standards for the 48-team 2026 World Cup, which was awarded to the “United Bid” of the United States, Canada and Mexico, required bidders to map all human rights risks and provide a strategy to address them. FIFA needs to consult with domestic and international human rights stakeholders about the World Cup. In Qatar, which was chosen as a host before the new policy was unveiled, human rights groups have spent years working to improve conditions — including ensuring better safety for the estimated 1 million migrant workers building stadiums in deadly heat — with some important reforms and progress to show for it. Neither of these measures can be replicated in Saudi Arabia, with major human rights activists in prison or silenced by threats, and a little more three years until the World Cup is slated to begin.
FIFA claims that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates also remain under consideration. Those countries, too, have alarming human rights records with regard to gender, sexuality, migrants’ rights and freedom of expression. It’s unclear how any of them could meet FIFA’s human rights standards in just over three years.
FIFA’s corporate partners — including Coca-Cola, Adidas and Visa — should be alarmed that FIFA is even considering expanding the contest at such a late stage to these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Women, journalists, members of the LGBTQ community and all fans of the game should ask why its most-watched event may be held in a country where their rights are not respected. And World Cup athletes should not have to compete where human rights are so severely compromised.
If Infantino’s expansion proposal leads to Saudi Arabia co-hosting the World Cup, it would damage FIFA’s human rights policies and reward Saudi Arabia’s escalating repression. It deserves a red card.