Saudi-Egyptian World Cup bid could make Qatar’s experience look like a no-brainer

At first glance, a possible bid by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s worst human rights abusers, to join Greece to host the 2030 World Cup sounds like an invitation to a perfect public relations fiasco.

This is undoubtedly true when you look at Qatar three months before the World Cup kicks off in November.

Independent media coverage of the World Cup in Qatar continues to severely criticize the Gulf state’s final preparations for the tournament and its record on migrant workers and human rights, despite significant legal and material reforms.

In addition, human rights groups continue to confront Qatar with legitimate demands such as an improved compensation system for workers who have suffered serious harm, including death, injury and wage theft.

Still, Qatar’s tough PR drive over the past 12 years since winning its rights to host the World Cup in late 2010, despite responding to criticism, could prove mild compared to what Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to expect , if and when they submit a formal application to FIFA, the world football governing body. Greece is also likely to be challenged for its partnership with the two autocracies.

Saudi Arabia has wanted to host a World Cup for some time in order to jointly establish itself as a regional sports hub, eclipsing Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Sport is a pillar of a larger effort to position the kingdom as the Middle East’s commercial and political center of gravity. In addition, Saudi Arabia is already an important religious reference point as the guardian of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam.

The sporting effort also aims to spur Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s creation of an entertainment sector that caters to the desires of the youth, helps diversify the country’s oil-export-based economy, and helps portray the kingdom as forward-thinking and innovative rather than mysterious and ultra-conservative, as was perceived for much of its existence.

By partnering with Greece and Turkey, Saudi Arabia hopes to improve its chances of winning the bid in a competition likely to be dominated by proposals from multiple countries. The strength of the offering is that it would be tricontinental, Asia, Africa and Europe.

Other potential competing partnerships are 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 a merger.

A partnership could allow Saudi Arabia to sidestep FIFA’s likely reluctance 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 a previous apparently failed attempt to join forces with Italy for a World Cup bid.

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to risk the kind of scrutiny Qatar has faced is rooted in a certain hubris on Mr Bin Salman’s part and an assessment of the Qatari experience.

Mr Bin Salman was emboldened by the preparedness of leaders such as US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson behind the unsolved 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the arrest to let scores on often flimsy fees and welcome the crown prince back into the international herd.

For the same reason, 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 who either live in glass houses or don’t want to join the lip service of the US and Europe in defending human rights or are opportunistic don’t want to get on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi hubris was shown this month in the sentencing of 34-year-old Leeds University PhD student 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 take the risk is likely rooted in an analysis of Qatar’s experience, which suggests that the Gulf state’s hosting of the World Cup will prove to be an overall success despite continued negative press in Western media. provided it pulls off the tournament without any notable glitches.

However, the human rights records of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are far more egregious than Qatar’s, which is in no way commendable.

Like the Kingdom and Egypt, Qatar is an autocracy with a legal infrastructure that strengthens the Emir as the absolute ruler of the country. Like potential contenders for the 2030 World Cup, Qatar lacks freedom of the press and association, bans extramarital sex and refuses to recognize LGBT rights.

But unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Qatar’s prisons are not occupied by political prisoners or violators of anti-LGBT laws. Human rights groups estimate Egypt is holding 60,000 political prisoners behind bars.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have improved the rights and opportunities of at least some women, eased gender segregation and lifted bans on modern entertainment such as music, dance and cinema. have often targeted LGBT communities for domestic enrichment.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly accused Egyptian authorities of “arbitrarily arresting” LGBT people, “holding them in inhumane conditions, subjecting them to systematic ill-treatment, including torture, and often inciting fellow inmates to ill-treat them.”

Saudi Arabia went to extremes to boost tourism, launching “rainbow attacks” on shops selling children’s toys and supplies in late 2021.

Authorities focused on clothing and toys, including barrettes, pop-its, t-shirts, bows, skirts, hats and crayons, “contradicting Islamic beliefs and public morals and promoting homosexual colors aimed at the younger generation.” , said a Commerce Department official.

Earlier, the Kingdom had banned Lightyear, a Disney and Pixar animation production, over a same-sex kissing scene and Disney’s Doctor Strange in the Universe of Madness, in which a character refers to their “two mothers.”

The litany of Saudi fundamental rights violations includes a ban on non-Muslim places of worship, although the kingdom has recently emphasized interfaith dialogue and welcomed Jewish visitors, including those with dual nationality, one of whom is Israeli and Christian religious leaders.

As a result, the headwinds a bid from Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to face could make Qatar’s experience look like a no-brainer.

Qatar have shown a certain skill in dealing with their World Cup critics, a quality that Saudi Crown Prince and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has yet to show.

dr James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, Adjunct Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, and author of the column and blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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