2034 World Cup: Saudi Arabia is not the only problematic host

2034 World Cup: Saudi Arabia is not the only problematic host

The case of Manahil al-Utaibi shows how little one can trust the Saudi Arabian legal system – despite all the assurances of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. When he became the de facto ruler of the country in 2017, he advocated social openness. The reality, however, is quite different.

Al-Utaibi (29) is a fitness trainer and influencer. A month ago, the woman, who for a long time was counted among bin Salman’s supporters in the hope of liberalization, was sentenced to eleven years in prison. She was arrested last September – for a “terrorist crime”, as the Saudi government declared at the time in response to a question from a UN special reporter. However, this is primarily because Al-Utaibi had appeared in videos wearing jeans and a T-shirt and without the traditional Arab overdress – and had also launched calls to end the system of male guardianship.

According to Dana Ahmed, human rights activist at Amnesty International with a focus on the Gulf states, this is anything but an isolated case in Saudi Arabia – the country in which the 2034 FIFA World Cup will most likely take place. The application deadline for the 2030 and 2024 football world tournaments expired on Tuesday. For 2030 there is only one joint application from Morocco, Portugal and Spain. For 2034 there is also only one candidate: Saudi Arabia. The situation there is particularly catastrophic with regard to fundamental, human and labor rights.

This is the conclusion reached by Amnesty International (AI). The organisation has published a report on the situation in the host countries – it reads like a slap in the face for the world football association. “With only one bidder each, FIFA has scored an own goal,” said Steve Cockburn of AI. It is urgently time “for FIFA to make it clear that it expects the bidders to commit to global human rights and to work with human rights organisations.” After all, FIFA had committed to demanding this promise from every bidder.

Kafala system receives criticism

However, this is not the case with Saudi Arabia – at least not yet. This is also a crucial difference to Qatar, where the last World Cup was held in 2022. The situation in terms of legal standards was also inadequate in the emirate. In Qatar, however, human rights organizations were able to get an on-site picture of the situation of workers on stadium construction sites and their often shockingly inadequate accommodation. “In Qatar, we were able to do research. There, we managed to ensure that there were certain labor reforms – although I’m not satisfied,” says Cockburn: “In Saudi Arabia, much less is possible. We have no access whatsoever.”

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What is known, however, paints a picture that hardly meets the requirements that FIFA itself – officially at least – sets. In Saudi Arabia, as in Qatar, the “Kafala” system prevails. The right of residence of guest workers – mainly from Africa and Southeast Asia – is linked to the employment contract. The result is dependency and exploitation. Excessive working hours, restrictions on freedom of movement, wage theft and the use of violence are the consequences. Added to this are unacceptable wages. In 2021, a minimum wage was introduced in Saudi Arabia: it is the equivalent of 1,067 US dollars. Anyone who complains about this often has their passport confiscated.

In addition, there are massive restrictions on freedom of expression – which do not even stop at football fans. In February, for example, supporters were arrested for singing a folk song in the stadium of their club Al Safa, the lyrics of which are completely harmless for an Islamic minority. They received between six months and a year in prison.

Problems also in Portugal and Spain

The situation is particularly difficult for women – which could also pose a threat to women who could travel to the World Cup as fans. “Both Saudi and foreign women are at risk of being subjected to unfair or disproportionate charges,” says the AI ​​report. For example, extramarital sex is a criminal offense, which is punished particularly harshly for women. It is also not uncommon for rape victims to be intimidated by the authorities if they file a complaint. In addition, women are repeatedly charged because of their choice of clothing.

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According to the official Saudi interpretation of Islamic Sharia, homosexuality is also punishable. Same-sex love, feminism and atheism are considered “extremist ideas,” according to the State Security Agency, “which are punishable by imprisonment or flogging.”

Amnesty International believes that FIFA, as host of the World Cup, has a duty

Source: dpa/Mike Egerton

With Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which is part of the bid for the 2030 World Cup, there are probably two host countries with significant grievances. But Spain and Portugal also have problematic areas: discrimination against immigrants and homosexuals are among them. In Spain, there is also an extension of working hours for construction work that is completely unacceptable by international standards – including on stadium construction sites.

But Saudi Arabia is particularly problematic. Amnesty International is therefore urging FIFA to finally take its responsibility seriously – and to ensure that the Saudis cooperate with human rights organizations.

“FIFA is now called upon to enforce the human rights protection it has formulated itself and to finally take steps,” said Ronan Evan, director of the Association of European Football Fans: “It would be a first step to save the already tarnished reputation of the 2030 and 2034 World Cups among fans.”

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