This July, FIFA’s Women’s World Cup will kick off across 10 stadiums in both Australia and New Zealand. It’s the first women’s cup to have 32 teams competing, to be hosted by two nations, and to take place since U.S. women’s soccer (the defending cup champions) officially won equal pay. Unfortunately, despite all the strides the sport has made since the 2019 cup, the sponsorship list for 2023 is dragging a giant fucking proverbial elephant into the stadium.
On Monday, The Athletic reported that Visit Saudi, Saudi Arabia’s official tourism board, is expected to sponsor this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. It’s a real unfortunate catch-22: Women’s soccer needs more sponsorships, and Saudi Arabia has deep pockets; but the Islamic country is also known for its horrible treatment of women, women’s right’s defenders, and anyone who criticizes the government.
In August, a woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for retweeting activists. An unverified video of security forces beating teenage girls inside an orphanage went viral in September after the teens allegedly tried to demand rights, according to the BBC. (Authorities announced an investigation, but there have been no updates, and the footage was removed from Twitter.) Men can still file cases against female family members for “disobedience,” and women still need a man’s permission to get married or receive certain types of health care, including (obviously) abortion.
Saudi Arabia’s Women’s National Football Team was only established in 2020. Women weren’t even allowed to enter public stadiums until 2018, which was also the first year that women were allowed to get driver’s licenses. The country didn’t send a single female athlete to the Olympics until 2012 and was the last country to do so, only after being pressured by the International Olympic Committee. So while progress is happening, it’s slow and remains heavily overshadowed by the country’s brutal human rights record.
“The rolling crackdown on human rights under Mohammed bin Salman has seen brave women’s rights defenders like Loujain al-Hathloul jailed, tortured and then banned from speaking publicly or leaving the country,” Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of priority campaigns and individuals at risk, told SportsPro Media. “So this latest reported effort to sportswash the country’s appalling human rights record is both breath-taking and yet entirely predictable.”
Saudi Arabia has a long history of using sports to present itself as friendly, progressive, and, most egregiously, champions of gender equality. (AKA: sportswashing.) The WWE held it’s first wrestling match in the country in 2019, and women competitors were required to wear outfits that covered their entire bodies. Most recently, rumors that the WWE is being sold to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund have elicited outrage from and for women and LGBTQ wrestlers/fans/employees. (The WWE’s co-CEO, Stephanie McMahon, also resigned in January.) At the time, Deadspin wrote that nothing official has been announced, “there’s just an explosion of smoke.”
And in one of the worst examples of sportswashing, in November, Golf Saudi announced that the $1 million prize for the winner of the Aramco Saudi Ladies International tournament would increase to $5 million—the same prize money awarded to the winner of the men’s tournament. The move was lauded as an important step for equality that would hopefully inspire other organizations to follow. All this progressiveness came just two months after the country sentenced (another) woman to 45 years in prison for “tweeting her opinions.”
“FIFA should speak out about the need for human rights reform in Saudi Arabia and not merely allow its premier women’s tournament to be used for sportswashing, while players, coaches and fans should likewise challenge this crude exploitation of their sport by Saudi Arabia,” Felix said.
Saudi Arabia is also rumored to be vying to co-host the men’s 2030 World Cup, along with Greece and Egypt. Unfortunately, a confirmed sponsorship for the women’s cup will all but solidify their bid—regardless of all the people they’ve jailed, silenced, or placed travel bans on in their bid to present themselves as a glowing, forward-thinking kingdom of gender equality.