Saudi Arabia tourism body’s sponsorship of 2023 Women’s World Cup condemned by human rights groups

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Human rights advocates have condemned the decision to allow Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority to sponsor the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, calling it a “textbook case of sportswashing”.

Visit Saudi is set to join international brands such as Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa in attaching their names to the 32-team tournament that is due to kick off on 20 July at Auckland’s Eden Park.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s history of oppressing women’s rights, Fifa has decided to ratify the deal under the new “commercial partnership structure” dedicated to developing revenues specifically for the women’s game. But the announcement has sparked criticism from human rights groups in Australia.

A spokesperson from Football Australia said they were seeking clarification from Fifa. “We are very disappointed that Football Australia were not consulted on this matter prior to any decision being made,” they said. “Football Australia and New Zealand Football have jointly written to Fifa to urgently clarify the situation.”

The director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, Minky Worden, said the decision showed a “shocking disregard” for the status of women in Saudi Arabia.

“It is a shocking disregard of the suffering and ongoing repression of courageous women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, to award the Saudi state tourism company sponsorship of the 2023 Women’s World Cup,” Worden said.

“It is worth remembering that, as recently as 2018, women and girls in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to play sport in schools – or even to watch sports in stadiums.

“Instead of sportswashing with sponsorships to attempt to rehabilitate its global image, it would be far better for Saudi Arabia to undertake fundamental human rights reforms, including to uphold basic rights for women and girls.”

A number of legal changes have been introduced in recent years in Saudi Arabia, including ending the ban on women driving and making amendments to the oppressive guardianship law that would allow, for the first time, women to apply for official documents such as a passport and to travel abroad independently.

However, women still have to obtain male guardian permission to get married, leave prison, or obtain some forms of sexual and reproductive healthcare. Male guardians can also bring legal action against women for “disobedience” and being absent from home.

There are still reports of arrests of peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals and human rights activists. Dozens of Saudi human rights defenders and activists continue to serve long prison sentences for criticising authorities or advocating for political reforms.

Nikita White, an Amnesty Australia campaigner, criticised Saudi authorities’ human rights record.

“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,” she said.

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

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“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 sport-washing.”

The director at the Australian Human Rights Institute, Prof Justine Nolan, condemned the move.

“It is evident that Fifa seems to have adopted a flexible approach to applying its human rights policy and that it is not taking a rigorous and holistic approach to respecting rights,” she said. “Its policy to respect universal human rights does not apparently extend to its sponsorship arrangements.

“The acceptance of Saudi Arabia as a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup – a country where women’s rights are expressly inhibited – ensures rights take a backseat to money and sponsorship.”

The 2023 Women’s World Cup hopes to accelerate the growth of the women’s game across the world, with an expanded competition and a tournament split over two countries for the first time.

On Monday, Fifa announced it had moved the opening match of the Australian leg to the 83,500-capacity Accor Australia stadium due to the huge demand for tickets. Fifa was contacted for comment.

In other news, Saudi Arabia has been chosen as the 2027 men’s Asian Cup hosts at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) congress in Bahrain. It will mark Saudi Arabia’s first staging of the event, with the decision confirmed after India, Iran, Qatar and Uzbekistan had earlier withdrawn from the bidding process.

The Gulf state is thought to be very keen to host the men’s World Cup in 2030, potentially in a joint bid alongside Greece and Egypt. Delegates at the AFC congress also re-elected the incumbent president, Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, for another four-year term.

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