‘Disgraceful in the extreme’: FIFA slammed for Saudi sponsorship of Women’s World Cup

A decision by FIFA to accept Visit Saudi as a sponsor of the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has been condemned by former Socceroo and human rights activist Craig Foster.

The sponsorship deal between FIFA and Saudi Arabia’s tourist arm is set to be announced as part of a new commercial strategy from football’s governing body, which allows individual sponsors to be signed for individual tournaments alongside FIFA’s major sponsors. VISA and the Commonwealth Bank have already been announced as sponsors of the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

FIFA declined to comment on the sponsorship when contacted by the Herald and The Age but the move to partner with Saudi Arabia for the Women’s World Cup has prompted strong criticism given the nation’s record of human rights abuses and oppressive treatment of women.

Though there have been changes in women’s rights in recent years which ended a ban on driving and allowed women to travel abroad independently, Saudi Arabia’s guardianship law is still in place.

The system means every woman must have a lifetime male guardian, who has authority over a range of decisions, including whether they can get married.

Foster, who was also a vocal critic of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, said FIFA’s decision to attach ‘Visit Saudi’ to the Women’s World Cup is unacceptable.

The Women’s World Cup will take place in Australia and New Zealand in 2023.Credit:Brook Mitchell

“Acceptance of Saudi sponsorship without acknowledgement of the accompanying human rights abuses is typical of FIFA and global sport right now and disgraceful in the extreme,” Foster told the Herald and The Age.

“The Australian Human Rights Commission formulated a report as mandated under FIFA’s human rights policy which identified salient risks, including to journalists, for example. This has not precluded a Saudi sponsorship despite state-sponsored assassination and dismemberment of a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

“It’s particularly galling that a nation that is listed on the global gender equality index at 127 out of 153 countries, has a legal system that entrenches gender discrimination against women and that issued a 34-year prison sentence to Salma Al-Shehab simply for tweets and retweets on human rights and political issues in Saudi Arabia now sponsors a women’s sport tournament in a country proud of its push for equality across all sport.”

Visit Saudi was a prominent partner of the men’s World Cup last year and has Lionel Messi on the books as ambassador for a reported $A35 million a year. Saudi Arabia’s increased links with sport have attracted major controversy, with accusations it is attempting to mask human rights abuses through “sportswashing”. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bankrolls LIV Golf, and Cristiano Ronaldo recently signed the largest ever contract to play in Saudi Arabia, for a whopping $315 million.

Cristiano Ronaldo smiles during a press conference for his official unveiling as a new member of Al Nassr soccer club in in Riyadh.Credit:AP

Saudi women were banned from attending football games as spectators as recently as 2017, but women’s football has grown in recent years, with a women’s national league created in 2020. The nation also hosted a four-team tournament in January, which saw the women’s national team put on FIFA’s rankings of the first time.

“It would be quite the irony for Saudi’s tourism body to sponsor the largest celebration of women’s sport in the world when you consider that, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, you can’t even have a job without the permission of your male guardian,” said Amnesty International Australia campaigner Nikita White.

“The Saudi authorities have a horrendous record of human rights abuses — including cracking down on women’s rights defenders.

“In recent years we’ve heard a lot about the release of activists from prison in Saudi Arabia including the women who campaigned for the right to drive, but people who are critical of the authorities and human rights defenders continue to be imprisoned following unfair trials.

Sam Kerr celebrates a goal against Sweden.Credit:Getty

“The campaign of so-called reform leader Mohammed bin Salman has been on is nothing more than a publicity stunt to try to diversify the economy. The Saudi authorities sponsoring the Women’s World Cup would be a textbook case of sportwashing.”

Foster called on players to speak out on Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.

“All players at the forthcoming Women’s World Cup should call out these issues and publicly state their opposition to the male guardianship system and abuse of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia generally,” he said. “By so doing, they can stand with other women both inside and outside of football and use their platform in front of the world to advance the lives of women everywhere.

Ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the Socceroos squad spoke out against human rights record and the suffering of migrant workers.

The 2023 FIFA World Cup organising committee in Australia referred all questions on the Visit Saudi sponsorship deal to FIFA head office. FIFA declined to comment.

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