Saudi Arabia, a country where homosexuality is illegal, a male guardianship culture predominates, and criticism of the governing regime can lead to immediate imprisonment, is now in pole position to host the 2034 Fifa Men’s World Cup. As the sole bidder left in the race, we should be concerned that another oil-rich Gulf state with a suspect human rights record is being handed the rights to the lucrative Fifa World Cup brand vehicle for the next 10 years.

Historically, events like the World Cup were viewed as being apolitical, spreading positive values associated with fair play, peace, and harmony. However, in recent decades, these events have become increasingly politicised, embroiled in controversy over corruption within the bidding process and lack of transparency within the operations of the organisations themselves. In 2015, Fifa even faced investigation by the FBI which led to then President, Sepp Blatter, eventually being removed from office and several other senior figures facing criminal charges. Fifa’s jewel in the crown, the Fifa World Cup, has also been mired in controversy since 2010 after awarding the hosting rights at the same time to Russia and Qatar, two nations with anti-homosexuality laws and repressive treatment of those speaking out against the governing regime.

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Since then, Fifa has been subject to intense media, public and even legal scrutiny, leading to demands for it to become more transparent, accept responsibility for the impact of their mega events on the host country, and to make efforts to reduce the scale of their impacts through reducing the size and scale of their events. For Fifa, this led to the development of a human rights policy. In the late 2010s as controversy around Qatar 2022 labour rights continued, Fifa also made public statements and introduced changes to the bidding process for the World Cup to emphasise the requirement for prospective hosts to undertake human rights risk assessments and demonstrate how they would adhere to international standards in planning and delivering this event.

These steps were the outcome of growing public pressure, alongside the naming and shaming work of advocacy organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and coalitions like the Sport & Rights Alliance and the Centre for Sport and Human Rights. Over the last few years these organisations have begun to engage in more formal conversations with Fifa, informing the formation of an Independent Human Rights Advisory Board to monitor their own activities. In this period, a degree of trust was generated between Fifa and advocacy organisations, as they appeared to be embedding a concern for human rights from the earliest possible stage of bidding and planning - where the power to leverage change is at its greatest. The bid process for the 2026 World Cup, eventually won by the USA, Canada and Mexico, was the first event to have human rights requirements included in the bid requirements, including human rights risk assessments carried out by each bidder.

However, recent decisions by Fifa are cause for serious concern. First, awarding the Club World Cup to China in 2021 broke its own policies and statutes. As Human Rights Watch said at the time, “there was no public bidding process, no stakeholder consultations, and no human rights risk assessment”. The award of the 2023 version to Saudi Arabia brought further criticism. Then, in early October 2023 Fifa announced that it was amending its bid process for the 2030 and 2034 World Cups with the former being held across three continents (Europe, Africa and South America) and the latter  being restricted to countries in either Asia or Oceania. Public reaction immediately suggested a stitch-up - prospective bidders were only given 27 days to declare interest and, unsurprisingly, only Saudi Arabia confirmed its intentions to bid.

Public scepticism about the value of mega sport events is at its highest level. If these events are to deliver on their progressive, ethical proclamations, then they cannot continue to be awarded without binding commitments to addressing prospective host nations’ problematic human rights records. This outcome must be negotiated before the World Cup selection decision is finally confirmed. Unfortunately, for the 2034 process, this will now be even more difficult to achieve with only a sole bidder in play.

Professor David McGillivray is chair in event and digital cultures at the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events, University of the West of Scotland