Ten years to go: key questions for the 2034 World Cup in Saudi Arabia

<span>An artist’s impression of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Stadium, which Saudi Arabia plans to build on a cliff near Qiddiya for the 2034 World Cup.</span><span>Photo: handout</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Tx3xt5yIuUmZEiq18BCCKA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/b3ee5e723653cd5523e87 0d6d9c7ca94″ data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Tx3xt5yIuUmZEiq18BCCKA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/b3ee5e723653cd5523e870d6d 9c7ca94″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=An artist’s impression of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Stadium, which Saudi Arabia wants to build on a cliff near Qiddiya for the 2034 World Cup.Photo: Handout

Saudi Arabia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2034. We know this, despite the fact that FIFA’s bidding process doesn’t end until the end of 2024. But ten years before the tournament there is still a lot we don’t know. Some of these issues are important, such as the time of year the games are played, but others are even more important. With the global football community’s power to influence outcomes perhaps at its peak, there are three key areas of uncertainty:

Human rights

The most serious challenge facing football’s global governing body as the World Cup moves to Saudi Arabia is this: how do you deliver on your promise to respect human rights, with a host country where those rights are routinely violated? Since 2016, FIFA, under the leadership of then newly elected President Gianni Infantino, has decided to apply the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to its work. According to FIFA’s statutes, this means that we are “committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and [striving] to promote the protection of these rights”.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is now ignoring a large number of articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite steps to improve its human rights framework, Saudi Arabia currently registers a score of eight out of 100 in Freedom House’s internationally respected Freedom in the World report, which assesses civil liberties and political rights within nation-states. Political dissent is punishable by death, women are legally obliged to obey their husbands in a “reasonable manner” and homosexuality is illegal.

There is widespread skepticism about whether FIFA can meet its human rights obligations, even if these are strictly limited to those of projects directly related to the World Cup. But there is a window for possible action. By this summer, the Saudi bid for 2034 must provide FIFA with an independent assessment of human rights in the country as part of its bid. FIFA is required to assess human rights risks as part of the selection process, with ‘sustainability and human rights’ being one of six selection criteria.

The independent assessment could be carried out by a consultancy firm or a group of academics, but there will be no first-hand input from human rights organizations because they are not allowed to operate in Saudi Arabia. For Lina al-Hathloul of the organization ALQST, which promotes human rights in Saudi Arabia, allowing human rights organizations to enter the country would be a necessary first step to ensure FIFA can fulfill its obligations. “The priority is to urge Saudi Arabia to allow human rights organizations to monitor the situation,” said Hathloul, a Saudi national in exile. “Then you can have more open doors, once you have the ability to monitor independently.”

Hathloul states that another important action would be for the international community to speak out about the reality in Saudi Arabia. “I still believe that sport can build bridges and open doors; it can have a positive effect on a country,” she says. “But everyone accepts silence about the KSA’s problems, arguing that it is a ‘cultural’ issue, and accepts everything the Saudi government says. It just builds a facade of openness while people are busy hiding.

“But leaders still fear the people and somehow people still have power and influence, even if not explicitly or formally. The very fact that they are hiding information about trials, hiding what is happening in prisons, is because they care about their image. They want the international community to view the country and its government as open and free. People need to work on the influence they have to show Saudi Arabia that they know the country is not open. They have to play the story game and say, ‘Even though Saudi Arabia has done everything possible to cover up what’s happening, we’re not going to let you get away with it.’

Related: Used, abused and deported: Migrant workers land back in Bangladesh after Saudi dreams turn sour

Labor rights

Labor rights are human rights, but the care and protection of workers is of particular importance at mega sporting events, and the World Cup in particular. The shame of Qatar, where more than 6,500 migrant workers died in the years after the Gulf state won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, should fuel additional determination to prevent tragedies in Saudi Arabia.

As part of its human rights obligations, FIFA has pledged to ensure that workers’ rights are protected and their safety guaranteed. The investigation into whether this happened in Qatar continues. But again, Saudi Arabia presents a new set of challenges. Mustafa Qadri, from the human rights and labor organization Equidem, says the picture in the country is “complicated” and that it has an edge over other Gulf states on some aspects of worker protection.

At the same time, however, “there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has the worst labor conditions of any Gulf country and that the country has the greatest political power in that region,” Qadri says. “You put these two things together and it’s a very dangerous mix in terms of FIFA’s ability to ensure that they host a tournament in a country that respects human rights.”

Saudi authorities point to recent progress on labor rights, including the abolition of the kafala system, which ties migrant workers to employers, and measures to regulate recruitment. However, there is a long list of further changes that Qadri believes could be made, some of which mirror those that were only implemented in Qatar later as the World Cup approached.

“It would be crucial for workers to join legitimate, independent unions,” he says. “Giving employees the opportunity to actually file complaints without being prosecuted. Removing the absconding law so that it is no longer a crime for employees to run away. Ensure that domestic workers and female workers enjoy the same de facto protections as male workers.”

Qadri is not confident that substantial changes will be achieved. “Because the threshold is so low, FIFA will focus on saying things have improved if there is some improvement, which is good to see, like in Qatar,” he says. “I think things have improved in Qatar, but given the amount of money, attention and expertise that has gone into the country, it has been an abysmal failure.”

Related: ‘Why should fit young men die?’: Deaths among migrant workers raise concerns over the World Cup in Saudi Arabia


Moving away from the fundamentals is the small matter of building the stadiums, facilities, connectivity and accommodation that will enable the World Cup to take place. Saudi Arabia does not come from a standing start and can use Qatar’s logistical success as an example. At the same time, the kingdom could only bid for 2034 because FIFA rules on the number of existing stadiums required in a bid were reduced from seven to four.

With the bidding process nominally continuing, Saudi authorities are not yet making any specific plans for the tournament crowd. However, the country usually does not talk about its ambitions and the speed and scale of its construction projects are breathtaking.

At the end of January, the first match was played at the Kingdom Arena, Al-Hilal’s new home ground, which was built in 180 days. Architects Populous have released the first drawings of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Stadium in Qiddiya, named after the ruling Crown Prince and designed according to FIFA World Cup requirements. The 45,000-seat arena will be wrapped in a huge LED screen and installed on the edge of a cliff.

Qiddiya is one of 16 “giga projects” under development as part of Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 strategy. Another such project, Neom, is expected to be the site of at least one World Cup stadium. But Neom has not yet been built, neither has Qiddiya, and in addition to the gigantic projects and the Football World Cup, Saudi Arabia wants to build the infrastructure to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games and the 2030 World Expo. This is a big question. , even for a country with a sovereign wealth fund of more than $600 billion.

According to Ed James of business intelligence consultancy Meed, the ability to deliver all these projects in one go is a topic of concern within the kingdom. “I think there is a recognition in Saudi Arabia that there are not enough resources,” he says.

“It is openly discussed. In terms of materials, whether that’s concrete or glass or steel or equipment, things like excavators and mobile cranes and so on. There will currently not be enough materials and equipment to deliver all these projects in parallel. It obviously creates cost pressure.”

James said the Saudi government is trying to get around financing issues by encouraging companies from a number of sectors to set up operations in the country. “Whether it’s glass or steel or electric vehicles or cables,” he says, “they say, ‘We’re going to help you come in, set up your facilities in the kingdom and we can guarantee a certain portion of your production .’ ”

Similar invitations are extended to the engineers, construction companies and consultants needed to deliver the projects, but they are not the only ones delivering these projects. “You see that migration, but a large part of those engineers have returned to Dubai, because that is also booming there now,” says James. “It is important to know that the United Arab Emirates is also thriving and there are two competing construction markets both trying to attract the same talent.”

Related: If FIFA does not act, another World Cup will be tainted by worker deaths, rights groups say

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