Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday it plans to bid to host the 2034 World Cup, the latest step in a campaign to turn the kingdom into a global sports powerhouse.
The bid “intends to deliver a world-class tournament and will draw inspiration from Saudi Arabia’s ongoing social and economic transformation and the country’s deep-rooted passion for football”, said a statement from the Saudi Arabian football federation.
News of the bid comes one year after neighbouring Qatar hosted the first World Cup in the Middle East, where the Saudi national team scored a stunning group stage victory over eventual winners Argentina.
The Saudi announcement came an hour after world football’s governing body FIFA released a statement giving its plans for the 2030 World Cup and inviting countries in the Asian Football Confederation to bid for 2034.
On the heels of the Qatar tournament, Saudi Arabia signed Cristiano Ronaldo to play in the Saudi Pro League, the first in a slew of major stars drawn by eye-watering salaries to the world’s biggest crude oil exporter.
Sport is a major component of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, which aims to transform Saudi Arabia into a tourism and business hub while transitioning the economy away from fossil fuels.
– Spending spree –
In the coming weeks, the kingdom is set to host the final LIV Golf League tournament of the regular season, a boxing match featuring Anthony Joshua and the Next Gen ATP Finals tennis tournament.
It will also host the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia was confirmed as host of football’s 2027 Asian Cup.
That event will enable Saudi officials to improve on existing football infrastructure, with new “world-class stadiums” constructed “in the most sustainable ways”, Saudi Football Federation President, Yasser Al Misehal, said on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia previously explored a tri-continental World Cup bid with Egypt and Greece, though that plan has been shelved.
The new Saudi-only bid means fans would face “maximum three-hour flying times between cities and stadiums”, Misehal said.
Riyadh’s willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sporting events has drawn accusations of “sportswashing”, using sport to distract from oft-criticised human rights abuses.
In an interview with Fox News last month, Prince Mohammed dismissed those attacks, saying “I will continue doing sportswashing” if it will benefit the Saudi economy.
– Prince in spotlight –
Hosting the World Cup would ratchet up scrutiny of the 38-year-old de facto ruler, who critics accuse of consolidating power through a fierce crackdown on dissent, including one recent case in which a retired teacher was sentenced to death for critical social media posts.
Prince Mohammed told Fox he was “ashamed” of that verdict.
World Cup-related construction could also draw a backlash from environmental activists who sounded the alarm last year after Saudi Arabia was awarded hosting rights for the 2029 Asian Winter Games, a 47-event competition to be held in Trojena, an area of the planned $500 billion futuristic megacity known as NEOM.
At the time, Greenpeace questioned how plans for Trojena – including a man-made freshwater lake, chalets, mansions and ultra-luxury hotels – could possibly be sustainable.
But Riyadh would be keen to use the World Cup as a showcase for various natural attractions, dispelling the notion that Saudi Arabia is one giant desert.
But Misehal said on Wednesday that fans would be drawn to “our mountains, our islands and of course our culture”, adding: “Everything will be connected with state-of-the-art facilities to guarantee an amazing fan experience.”
The Asian Football Confederation came out in support of the Saudi 2034 World Cup bid shortly after it was announced on Wednesday.
“I am delighted to note that the (Saudi football federation) have presented their intention to bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2034,” said AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.
“The entire Asian football family will stand united in support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s momentous initiative, and we are committed to working closely with the global football family to ensure its success.”