- Saudi Arabia only established a women’s national team last year
- Lionel Messi also has an endorsement deal with the Saudi tourism board
In December 2021, Fifa introduced a new commercial partnership structure permitting brands to agree sponsorship deals exclusively centred on its women’s soccer tournaments. The governing body has subsequently partnered with payment technology giant Visa as a global women’s soccer sponsor, while Australia’s Commonwealth Bank has also come on board as an official supporter of this summer’s Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women’s World Cup.
The Athletic now reports that Visit Saudi will also become an official partner of the 2023 World Cup. That marketing deal would be the Saudi tourism board’s most high-profile sponsorship after the brand ambassador agreement it signed with Argentinian soccer icon Lionel Messi last year.
In 2018, the Arab nation allowed female soccer fans to attend matches for the first time in its history, as part of a number of reforms made to try modernise the country. Two years late, the country’s sports authorities unveiled the Saudi Women’s Premier League, the first domestic competition formed in women’s soccer.
Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team was established last year, making its debut with a friendly win over Seychelles last February. Earlier this month the Arab nation hosted and won a four-team women’s international friendly tournament, just after Fifa had appointed the country’s first female international referee.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s recent moves in women’s soccer, Amnesty International UK’s head of priority campaigns and individuals at risk, Felix Jakens, told SportsPro: “The rolling crackdown on human rights under Mohammed bin Salman has seen brave women’s rights defenders like Loujain al-Hathloul jailed, tortured and then banned from speaking publicly or leaving the country, so this latest reported effort to sportswash the country’s appalling human rights record is both breath-taking and yet entirely predictable.
“After Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing, the purchase of Newcastle United, the LIV golf series and the country’s hosting of numerous high-profile sporting events, Saudi Arabia’s use of sport to try to mask its terrible human rights record is now a depressingly well-established pattern.
“Women in Saudi Arabia face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody rights, while Saudi women who’ve dared to speak out about the need for reforms in the country have received massive jail sentences.
“Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets mean that sponsorship partnerships like this are probably going to become more common, but without human rights reforms to match the sport and entertainment packages Saudi Arabia will rightly be accused of pursuing a cynical sportswashing agenda.
“Fifa should speak out about the need for human rights reform in Saudi Arabia and not merely allow its premier women’s tournament to be used for sportswashing, while players, coaches and fans should likewise challenge this crude exploitation of their sport by Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s reported involvement in the Women’s World Cup will likely draw a lot of scrutiny, given the country’s controversial human rights record and the state’s ongoing campaign to ‘sportswash’ its image.
The Arab nation has long stopped women from participating in sport and recently sentenced female activist Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison for posting support for women’s rights defenders on Twitter. In this context, it is difficult to see the endorsement of a major women’s soccer tournament appears as anything other than a cynical attempt to present a friendlier face overseas.
The reported partnership will also heighten speculation about the prospect of Fifa’s tournaments being staged in Saudi Arabia going forward. It has long been rumoured that the Arab nation is spearheading a bid to host the men’s 2030 World Cup, alongside Greece and Egypt. Sponsoring a major Fifa event will certainly earn the country plenty of goodwill among officials, with the tournament’s location to be announced next year.