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Saudi Arabia confirmed as sole bidder for 2034 men’s World Cup

Saudi Arabia has been confirmed as the sole bidder to host the 2034 men’s World Cup, raising concerns over Fifa’s ability to fulfil its human rights commitments.

After Australia decided against a bid, having been given a 25-day window by Fifa to express interest when the deadline was brought forward unexpectedly to 4pm GMT on Tuesday, the prospect of a second World Cup in the Gulf within 12 years is all but a formality. The lack of a competitive tender and the alacrity with which the process has been conducted, however, have prompted alarm among human rights groups. Amnesty International called on Fifa to pull the plug if human rights commitments were not fulfilled.

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“Human rights commitments must be agreed with potential hosts before final decisions on holding the tournaments are made,” Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice, said. “Fifa must now make clear how it expects hosts to comply with its human rights policies. It must also be prepared to halt the bidding process if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed.

“The best chance for Fifa to obtain binding guarantees to protect workers’ rights, ensure freedom of expression and prevent discrimination linked to the World Cup is during the host selection process – not after the hosts have been confirmed and tournament preparation has begun.”

Under the terms of its bidding process for the 2030 and 2034 men’s World Cup finals tournaments, Fifa expects any host to conform with the terms of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This would require, in Fifa’s words, “human rights and labour standards to be implemented by the bidding member associations, the government(s) and other entities involved in the organisation of the competitions, such as those responsible for the construction and renovation of stadiums, training sites, hotels and airports”.

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Any country hoping to host a World Cup must, as a first step, lay out as part of its bid human rights risks that could prevent them from meeting the UN guidelines. Fifa is then committed to “constructively engage with relevant authorities and other stakeholders and make every effort to uphold its international human rights responsibilities”.

The Sports and Rights Alliance, which brings together a number of human rights organisations, argues that the lack of a competitive process has left Fifa with less leverage to enforce necessary change. Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, urged Fifa to be rigorous in its enforcement of its expressed principles.

“Fifa’s human rights policy must not be reduced to a paper exercise when it comes to choosing the host of the world’s most watched sporting event,” she said. “Given the enormous scale of the World Cup, there are far-reaching human rights risks to consider with all bids to host this tournament – as well as opportunities for change that should not be missed.”

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Saudi Arabia has until July 2024 to submit its full bid. Fifa is due to publish its assessments at the end of next year before a confirming vote is held at its Congress. With Fifa having failed to extract binding commitments on human rights when the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010, a series of measures developed under Gianni Infantino after his election as president in 2016 sought to address the problem, with limited effect. Workers continued to be exploited during the buildup to the tournament and reports persist of individuals having payments withheld and being denied their rights since.

Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, is a country where homosexuality is illegal. The leading sports rights activist and chair of the Fare network, Lou Englefield, called on Fifa and the Saudi authorities to engage on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ people at the 2034 tournament. “It is important that the men’s World Cup is shared around the world,” she said. “We think that is a critical part of developing football and globalising it as an agent for social change.

“After the shocking events at the Qatar World Cup less than a year ago where LGBTIQ+ people were effectively marginalised and our concerns dismissed, we are looking for guarantees of a different approach by the Saudi authorities. We believe that the men’s World Cup could be a genuine vehicle for inclusion and will be seeking opportunities for dialogue as soon as possible.”