Saudi Arabia's 2030 World Cup bid crumbles before kickoff
Egypt has withdrawn from the Saudi-led joint bid that also included Greece. Could geopolitical tensions have played a role?
Last summer, Mohammed bin Salman—the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia—and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a private conversation regarding a proposed joint bid to co-host the 2030 World Cup with Egypt. During the meeting, the crown prince presented a bold proposition: the oil-rich kingdom would cover the costs of hosting the event in exchange for the rights to host three quarters of the matches.
While it is unclear whether the offer was accepted, reports later suggested that the three countries were working on a joint bid to host the 2030 tournament.
However, the talks have since suffered a setback after Egypt’s sports minister Ashraf Sobhy revealed that the country was not planning to submit an application to stage the World Cup.
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“This is not our aim at the moment,” Sobhy said in an interview with Sada El Balad. “However, we are currently studying future events, whether it be the 2036 Olympic Games or a potential World Cup after 2030.”
Days later, the Saudi-led bid was dealt another blow when the Confederation of African Football (CAF)—football’s regulatory body in Africa—officially endorsed Morocco's joint bid with Spain and Portugal for the tournament in seven years. Morocco had stepped in as a joint bidder with the European countries after Ukraine pulled out due to the war with Russia.
“The unanimous decision that was taken by the CAF Executive Committee to support Morocco’s bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2030 means that the bid of Morocco is now the bid of the African Continent,” President of CAF Patrice Motsepe said. "We are now focusing on ensuring that Africa once more hosts the FIFA World Cup and are committed to working together with all Football National Associations and Confederations to make this happen."
By partnering with Egypt and Greece, Saudi Arabia aimed to leverage the collective infrastructure, resources, and expertise of the three nations. While world governing body FIFA is unlikely to approve another Middle Eastern or Arab bid just eight years after Qatar hosted the 2022 edition, the proposed tricontinental coalition aimed to circumvent that obstacle while combining their respective strengths and resources to present a more compelling case for hosting the World Cup.
Apart from the savvy strategy to sway votes, the virtues of the Saudi-led bid also included increased tourism potential, a diversified cultural experience, geographic balance, and enhanced regional cooperation. However, the bid was also burdened by unequal financial contributions, potential logistical challenges and competing political interests and considerations.
The Saudi-led bid would have also faced significant scrutiny given the collective human rights record of the three nations involved. Greece has long been criticized for its treatment of migrants, including its illegal practice of pushing boats of asylum seekers back to Turkey.
Saudi Arabia has been linked to countless human rights abuses, including the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its crackdown on intellectuals, LGBTQ+ people, reformers, and women’s rights activists.
In August 2022, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University, was given a 34-year prison sentence for using Twitter to follow and retweet dissidents and activists. Al-Shehab is a mother of two young children and was not known as a vocal activist inside the kingdom. She had about 2000 followers on Twitter and was initially expected to serve a three-year sentence. However, an appeals court Monday imposed a sentence of 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban.
Later that same month, another Saudi woman was handed a 45-year prison sentence for “using the internet to tear the social fabric” and “violating public order by using social media.” The draconian sentencing emphasizes the kingdom’s continued oppression of female dissidents despite claims of reform and progress.
Meanwhile, Egypt continues to repress freedom of expression and assembly while crushing all forms of dissent and opposition to the country’s president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi. The country is also facing crippling economic concerns, which has led to increased tensions with Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Egypt has looked to the oil-rich kingdom for financial support to guide it out of the crisis but Saudi officials have insisted that any further assistance would be conditional.
El-Sisi, who had repeatedly looked to Saudi Arabia to come to Cairo’s aid since his rise to power in a 2013 coup d’état, has met with Bin Salman on several occasions since Saudi signalled its intent to limit financial aid. Their most recent meeting took place in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah during an Arab summit last week.
It is possible that the increased tensions contributed to Egypt’s decision to withdraw from the joint bid to host the World Cup.
While the Saudi-led bid appears to have crumbled before kickoff, the trans-continental proposal signals the latest development of the kingdom’s ambitions.
Saudi now hosts a yearly Formula 1 race, biannual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) shows, the world’s richest horse race, as well as a professional golf league to rival the PGA tour. The country’s sovereign wealth fund (PIF) also financed the purchase of Newcastle United, a soccer team in the English Premier League. Hosting the World Cup would serve as the pinnacle of Saudi Arabia’s sports investment strategy and the culmination of its transformation into a hub for global sports and entertainment events.
Saudi Arabia also holds geopolitical ambitions that would greatly benefit from an event of the magnitude of a tri-nation World Cup.
In March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within a matter of months. The regional rivals, who had engaged in proxy wars across the Middle East, were able to resolve longstanding issues in an agreement that was mediated by China. This development showed broader signs of the changing political landscape around the world—changes that do not involve the United States as a dominant hegemony.
By proposing a multipolar World Cup, Saudi Arabia is looking to utilize its position as a juncture of Eurasia, Africa, the Mediterranean. This strategic positioning as a central figure in the changing global order allows Saudi Arabia to peddle soft power and influence over a vast geographical area untapped and under-utilized by Western rivals like the United States.
Despite the bid not materializing as intended, Saudi Arabia's ambitions to host the World Cup will remain a key part of its long-term political strategy.
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