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World Cup in Saudi Arabia sparks human rights protest

Nov. 5, 2023 - 18:14 By Moon Joon-hyun
Yasser Al Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, speaks during the draw for the FIFA Club World Cup Saudi Arabia 2023, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sep. 5 this year. (Yonhap)

The appointment of Saudi Arabia as the host for the 2034 FIFA World Cup has elicited a backlash from multiple human rights groups over the nation's contentious rights record, coming just weeks before the final decision on its bid for the World Expo 2030.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino confirmed the host as the only bidder last Tuesday after Australia withdrew its bid hours before the Tuesday deadline.

Critics are primarily concerned about the potential exploitation of migrant workers who will construct the infrastructure and stadiums for the World Cup.

“The Saudi World Cup is sportswashing. It’s a strategy that spends millions to try to distract people from the country's human rights abuses,” said Andrew Stroehlein from Human Rights Watch, an international New York-based human rights organization, in a statement on their website the next day.

“Last month, in an interview with Fox News even Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman openly confessed to sportswashing, even using the very term itself,” he added.

The criticism extends to FIFA for allegedly overlooking Saudi Arabia's human rights record in the run-up to the selection.

On Oct. 31, Amnesty International, a global human rights advocacy group based in the UK, demanded the FIFA halt the bidding process if human rights risks cannot be addressed.

The United Nations has long maintained that hosting international sporting events comes with an ethical obligation to maintain human rights standards, a stance reaffirmed during the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last month.

Saudi Arabia's bid to host multiple global events in recent years, such as the World Expo 2030, has consistently encountered criticism over human rights concerns. The Middle East and North Africa Rights Group called on the Expo organizer Bureau International des Expositions to dismiss Saudi Arabia's bid this May.

Currently, the kingdom is vying with Korea’s Busan and Italy’s Rome to host the upcoming Expo. The BIE plans to hold its annual general assembly in Paris on Nov. 28 to decide the hosting city.