The State Tourism Authority of Saudi Arabia is to become the official sponsor of the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The deal has not yet been officially announced by the world football association Fifa, but there has already been a lot of criticism. “A lot of people in our sport don’t stand for these values,” said the German goalkeeper Almuth Schult: “Women in particular are not equal in society there and then this project is just not credible.”

The captain of the German national team, Alexander Popp, is skeptical about Visit Saudi’s sponsorship: “I think the others from other nations have said a lot that this is not the best sponsor for a women’s World Cup – for what we women stand for.” said Popp. US team superstar Alex Morgan called the sponsorship “bizzar”. In a comment, the human rights organization Human Rights Watch demanded that FIFA reverse the deal.

Even the organizers were surprised. The New Zealand association announced at the beginning of February that they were “shocked and disappointed,” after all FIFA had not contacted the local World Cup committee because of the unwelcome sponsor. Australia’s federation issued a statement highlighting the diversity of love. A sponsor from Saudi Arabia doesn’t fit in here – in the desert state, homosexuals face severe penalties, up to and including death.

Saudi Arabia has made some progress on women’s rights in recent years. Since 2018, women have been able to drive their own cars, the headscarf requirement has been lifted, they have recently been allowed to go to the cinema, to concerts and to the stadium without a guardian. Women can study or work whatever they want free from the consent of a guardian. Independent travel abroad is now also possible, at least from the age of 21.

But progress hides the fact that the strict guardianship system still exists in crucial areas of life. Marriage is not possible without the consent of the guardian, free and critical expression is not permitted. The unwritten dress codes remain rigid in the strictly conservative countries. If women take off their headscarves and traditional abayas, they face discrimination and hostility.

The rights of the LGBTQ community are worse off. Anyone who admits to being homosexual faces imprisonment. Considering that many women footballers in world football are openly lesbian, the deal with Visit Saudi seems even stranger.

From the perspective of the arch-conservative kingdom, however, the new sponsorship agreement makes sense. It fits into the country’s strategy of using sporting events to distract people from the still serious human rights violations and to engage in sports washing. Most recently, it established the Golf-Tour LIV and lured some of the best golf professionals in the world with a lot of money.

Formula 1 has been hosting a Grand Prix in Jeddah since 2021, the country is the scene of the boxing duel between heavyweights Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Ussyk. Soccer world champion Lionel Messi is already a Saudi Visit ambassador and aging superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has been signed by Saudi club Al Nassr FC.

One of the big goals is to bring the men’s soccer World Cup to the country in 2030. The model is Qatar, where the first World Cup tournament in an Arab country took place last year. For the ruling family there, the World Cup, the first in an Arab country, was a great success, despite all the criticism from the West.

Qatar has shown that Fifa and its President Gianni Infantino have no fear of contact with authoritarian states. And that criticism has little or no effect. Fifa let any objections about the serious human rights violations in Qatar roll off coolly and referred to alleged improvements. Instead, Infantino spoke of the “best World Cup ever”. One can assume that Infantino will also defend the contract with Saudi Visit as a promising cooperation.

So far, resistance to the deal has only been expressed in isolated voices. So far, “we haven’t really discussed what we can do,” admits goalkeeper Schult. “But if the sponsorship is confirmed, I can well imagine protests being voiced.”

Sources: DPA, Human Rights Watch, “New York Times”, “Forbes”, “Focus”, “Sportschau”