Ten years to go: key questions facing Saudi Arabia’s 2034 World Cup

<span>An artist's impression of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Stadium, which Saudi Arabia plans to build on a cliff near Qiddiya for the 2034 World Cup.</span><span>Photograph: Handout</span>
An artist's impression of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Stadium, which Saudi Arabia plans to build on a cliff near Qiddiya for the 2034 World Cup.Photograph: Handout

Saudi Arabia will host the 2034 World Cup. We know this, despite the fact that Fifa’s bidding process does not finish until the end of 2024. But with 10 years until the tournament there is still much we don’t know. Some of these issues are important, such as the time of year in which the games will be played, but others are more significant still. With the power of the global football community to influence outcomes perhaps at its peak, here are three key areas of uncertainty:

Human rights

The most serious challenge facing football’s world governing body as it takes the World Cup to Saudi Arabia is this: how do you honour your commitment to respecting human rights, with a host country where those rights are routinely abused? Since 2016, under the direction of the then newly elected president, Gianni Infantino, Fifa has determined to apply the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights to its work. This, according to Fifa’s statutes, means being “committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and [striving] to promote the protection of these rights”.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), meanwhile, flouts any number of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite moves to improve its human rights framework, Saudi currently registers a score of eight out of 100 in the internationally respected Freedom in the World report by Freedom House, which assesses civil liberties and political rights within nation states. Political dissent is punishable by death, women are legally required to obey their husbands in a “reasonable manner” and homosexuality is illegal.

There is widespread scepticism over whether Fifa can live up to its commitments on human rights, even if these are limited strictly to the liabilities of projects related directly to the World Cup. But there is a window for potential action. By this summer the Saudi 2034 bid must supply an independent assessment of human rights in the country to Fifa as part of its bid. Fifa is obliged to assess human rights risks as part of the selection process with “sustainability and human rights” one of six selection criteria.

The independent assessment could be conducted by a consultancy or a group of academics but there will be no first-hand input from human rights organisations because they are not allowed to operate in Saudi Arabia. For Lina al-Hathloul of the organisation ALQST, which promotes human rights in Saudi Arabia, enabling human rights organisations to enter the country would be a necessary first step to ensuring Fifa can honour its commitments. “The priority is to push for Saudi Arabia to allow human rights organisations to monitor the situation,” says Hathloul, a Saudi national in exile. “Then you can have more open doors, once you have the ability to monitor independently.”

Hathloul argues that another key action would be for the international community to start speaking up about the reality in Saudi Arabia. “I do still believe that sport can build bridges and open doors; it can impact positively a country,” she says. “But everyone accepts being silent on KSA’s problems, arguing it’s a ‘cultural’ issue, accepting whatever the Saudi government says. It just builds a facade of opening up while people are engaged in covering up.

“But leaders still fear the people and in one way or another people still have power and leverage even if it’s not explicit or formal. The very fact they hide information about trials, hide what’s happening in prisons, it’s because they care about their image. They want the international community to see the country and the government as open and free. People have to work on the leverage they have to show Saudi that they know it is not open. They need to play the game of narratives, to say: ‘Even though Saudi Arabia have gone to all these lengths to hide what is happening we won’t let you get away with it.’”

Related: Used, abused and deported: migrant workers land back in Bangladesh after Saudi dreams turn sour

Labour rights

Labour rights are human rights but the care and protection of workers is of special relevance to mega sporting events, and the World Cup in particular. The shame of Qatar, where more than 6,500 migrant workers died in the years after the Gulf state won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, should mean an extra determination to prevent tragedy in Saudi Arabia.

As part of its human rights commitments Fifa has pledged to ensuring workers’ rights are protected and their safety assured. An inquiry into whether it did so in Qatar is continuing. But, again, Saudi Arabia presents a new set of challenges. Mustafa Qadri, of the human rights and labour organisation Equidem, says the picture in the country is “complicated” and that it is ahead of other Gulf states in some aspects of worker protection.

At the same time, however, “there is no question that Saudi Arabia has the worst labour conditions of any of the Gulf states and it has the most significant political power in that region”, Qadri says. “When you put those two things together it’s a really dangerous mix in terms of Fifa’s ability to make sure they’re holding a tournament in a country that will respect human rights.”

Saudi authorities point to recent progress on labour rights, including the abolition of the kafala system, which binds migrant workers to employers, and measures to regulate recruitment. There is a lengthy list of further changes which Qadri argues could be made, however, some of which echo those belatedly adopted in Qatar as the World Cup approached.

“Allowing workers to join legitimate independent trade unions would be a key one,” he says. “Allowing workers to actually file complaints without being prosecuted. Removing the absconding law so that it’s no longer a crime for workers to run away. Making sure that domestic workers and female workers have the same de facto protections as male workers.”

Qadri is not confident that substantial change will be achieved. “Because the threshold is so low, if there is any improvement, which will be good to see, then Fifa will focus on saying that things have improved, like they did in Qatar,” he says. “I think things have improved in Qatar, but given how much money, attention and expertise has been poured into the country it’s been an abysmal failure.”

Related: ‘Why should fit young men be dying?’: migrant worker deaths spark concerns over Saudi Arabia World Cup


Away from the fundamental matters is the small issue of building the stadiums, facilities, connectivity and accommodation that will enable the World Cup to take place. Saudi Arabia is not coming from a standing start and can point to the logistical success of Qatar as a template to follow. At the same time, the kingdom was able to bid for 2034 only because Fifa’s regulations on the number of existing stadiums required in any bid was reduced from seven to four.

With the bidding process nominally continuing, Saudi authorities are not making specific plans for the tournament public as yet. Customarily, however, the country does not talk down its ambitions and the speed and scale of its building projects are breathtaking.

In late January, the first match was played at the Kingdom Arena, the new home of Al-Hilal, which was built in 180 days. The architects Populous have released the first drawings of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Stadium in Qiddiya, named after the ruling crown prince and designed to Fifa’s World Cup requirements. The 45,000-seat arena is to be wrapped in an enormous LED screen and installed on the edge of a cliff.

Qiddiya is one of 16 “giga-projects” in development as part of Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 strategy. Another such project, Neom, is expected to be the site of at least one World Cup stadium. But Neom has not been built, neither has Qiddiya, and, alongside the giga-projects and the World Cup, Saudi Arabia is ­committed to building the infrastructure to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games and the World Expo in 2030. This is a big ask, even for a country with a sovereign wealth fund of more than $600bn.

According to Ed James of the business intelligence consultancy Meed, the ability to deliver all these projects, all at once, is a topic of concern inside the kingdom. “I think there is recognition in Saudi Arabia that there isn’t enough resource,” he says.

“It’s openly discussed. In terms of materials, whether that’s concrete or glass or steel or equipment, things like diggers and mobile cranes and so on. There isn’t going to be enough materials and equipment as it stands to deliver all these projects in parallel. It obviously creates cost pressures.”

James argues that the Saudi government is trying to get around resourcing issues by encouraging businesses from a number of industries to set up operations in the country. “Whether that’s glass or steel or electric vehicles or cables,” he says, “they are saying: ‘We are going to help you to come in, establish your facilities in the kingdom and we can guarantee a certain amount of your output.’”

Similar invitations are being made to the engineers, construction companies and consultants required to deliver the projects, but they are not alone in making them. “You see that migration but quite a lot of those engineers have returned to Dubai because it too is booming now,” James says. “It’s important to know that the United Arab Emirates is also booming and you have two competing construction markets both trying to attract the same talent.”

Related: Another World Cup will be tainted by worker deaths if Fifa fails to act, say rights groups