When it was announced that Visit Saudi was bidding to be a major sponsor of the forthcoming Women’s World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand later this year, the news was received with widespread shock and criticism. The co-hosts, who were reportedly not consulted prior to the decision, wrote to FIFA to request urgent clarification when news of the deal with Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority emerged. There then followed a gathering storm of criticism with several international players questioning the wisdom of the deal. Two of the most famous players, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan of Team USA, described the decision as “bizarre”, and “totally inappropriate”. Then finally, on 17 March it was announced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino that Visit Saudi will no longer be a sponsor for the women’s world cup. It is worthwhile to examine why the Visit Saudi bid that on the face of it was simply a commercial deal proved to be so controversial, and what, if any, lessons can be learnt as a result.
Sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup is a big deal. It is the most watched women’s sport event globally, and through sponsorship the top sponsors are able to advertise their brand to the world. It is notable that the Visit Saudi deal was announced by FIFA as part of its new commercial partnership structure, supposed to be dedicated to generating revenues specifically for the women’s game. By associating their brand with the event, a sponsor may be seen as aligned to the tournament’s values of inclusion and female rights. In the words of Australia Women’s National Soccer team vice-captain Moya Dodd, the Women’s World Cup has diversity at its heart:
Critics of the Visit Saudi deal were motivated to speak out from a concern that the state of Saudi Arabia does not share these values. Some went further: Human Rights Watch described the decision by FIFA to award Visit Saudi sponsorship of the 2023 Women’s World Cup as showing a “shocking disregard for the suffering and repression of Saudi’s courageous women’s rights defenders”. Although in recent years some legal reforms have given greater rights to women in Saudi Arabia, the country is still considered an “outlier” by human rights and equalities activists, who have pointed in particular to the system of male guardianship, which was in fact codified into the legal system in 2022. Saudi states that women must obtain permission from a male guardian to marry and that they are legally obliged to obey their husbands. Women are required to seek permission for some forms of sexual and reproductive health care, or if they wish to study abroad. The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Saudi Arabia are also proscribed, and any public discussion around gender and sexuality is banned, punishable by prison and corporal punishment.
In spite of such restrictions on female freedoms, a quiet revolution has occurred in Saudi Arabia in relation to women’s football, and spectatorship of soccer games is also known to be highly popular among women. The first nationwide league for women in Saudi Arabia was set up in 2020, and in January this year, the national women’s team qualified for FIFA’s rankings for the first time. Nevertheless, owing to the Saudi state’s record on human rights it is feared that its bid to sponsor the Women’s World Cup was an attempt to cleanse Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by having a visible and prominent association with a globally popular sport.
FIFA now has a policy that requires it to conduct human rights due diligence – as seen in selecting the cities and stadiums to host the FIFA World Cup 2026™ – and to enforce its human rights and non-discrimination policies across its organisation, including in awarding rights to host or sponsor a tournament. Yet the latest claims of sportswashing in relation to the Women’s World Cup rights appear to have taken the organisation by surprise, with only a few months before the tournament begins.
As with the men’s game, sponsorship is an important and highly lucrative element of the modern tournament and has attracted globally recognised brands. The initial award of sponsorship rights to Visit Saudi and the subsequent protest by players demonstrates that notwithstanding the approval and oversight processes of the global governing body, there is a willingness to hold FIFA to account for its decisions and ensure that privileged sponsors are appropriately aligned to the values of the game. The overturning by FIFA of its decision, may be taken as a sign of the power that lies in the hands of players and activists to influence its governance.