FIFA World Cup (Reuters photo)

Saudi Arabia announced its 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 (AFC) to bid for 2034.

UAE considering visa-free travel for Gulf residents

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is considering implementing a visa system that would allow residents to travel easily to other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, including Saudi Arabia. The proposed system aims to facilitate free movement within the bloc and could be introduced in the near future. Currently, foreign residents in the GCC countries often require visas to cross borders, while citizens of the bloc can travel freely.

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.

WTTC & Saudi Arabia sign MoU; focus on job creation, investments in tourism

This collaboration will help unite both private and public sectors in a concerted effort to create a sustainable framework for growth. Additionally, it seeks to promote community empowerment and inclusion while jointly addressing crisis preparedness, management, and recovery, drawing from the valuable lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic

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.

Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia would take heat for outlawing homosexuality and for its treatment of migrant workers, said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Still, there is a growing sense of inevitability to the emerging centrality of the Gulf region to the sport,” she said.

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.

Misehal, the football federation president, 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.

“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,” said AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.

The Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also called on its 57 member states to back the bid.

  • Published On Oct 5, 2023 at 10:00 AM IST

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