Clip of all goals of the seventh round of the Premier League/Sport1
Saudi Arabia's sports minister says claims of "sportwashing" in the country are "very shallow" and defended Saudi Arabia's right to host the World Cup in 2034, whether it is held in summer or winter. "A lot of the people accusing us haven't been to Saudi Arabia or seen what we're doing," Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal said.
Critics say unprecedented spending on sports and sporting events is actually being used to improve the reputation of Saudi Arabia, the rich and corrupt kingdom that regularly violates human rights, violates women's and LGBT rights, violates freedom of expression, and also harms the environment.
Saudi Arabia has invested about $6 billion in sports since 2021, with the country's crown prince making the sport a key part of his strategy to diversify the economy, with a slew of major sporting events brought to the kingdom, including boxing and Formula 1. The country's public investment fund also launched the LIV Professional Golf Tour, taking over four football clubs and acquiring Newcastle United.
Activists argue that this huge government investment in sports is being used to distract attention from longstanding reputation problems, such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the war in Yemen, a process known as sportwashing.
"20 million of our population are under the age of 30, so we need to get them involved – and we are doing our job to develop sports in the world and be part of the international community," he said.
Are Israelis also invited? Sports Minister/Getty Images, Qian Jun/MB Media
Asked about hosting the World Cup, which is likely to be winter again due to Saudi Arabia's sweltering summer, and the choice was again controversial, he added: "We have hosted more than 85 world events at the highest level. We want to draw the world here through sports. I hope that by 2034, people will have an extraordinary World Cup."
FIFA has expressed a commitment to improving human rights before formally certifying next year's Saudi World Cup. According to FIFA guidelines, countries hosting the event must respect human rights. "Every country has room for improvement, no one is perfect. We admit it and these events help us reform a better future for all," Prince Abdulaziz said.
Women in Saudi Arabia were only allowed into sports stadiums to watch matches in 2018, but since then a professional women's soccer league and a national women's team have been created, with more than 70,000 girls now playing regularly. However, last month Jake Daniels, the gay footballer, said he "won't feel safe" at the 2034 World Cup.
"Everyone is welcome to the kingdom," Prince Adbulaziz said. "Like any other country, we have laws and rules that everyone has to abide by and respect. When we come to the UK we respect the laws and regulations, whether we believe in them or not. So far in the 85 incidents we've had, we haven't had any problems."
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The 2034 tournament is likely to be in winter given the extreme heat in the country in the summer, at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But Prince Abdulaziz said organisers were "definitely learning" whether it could be brought up in the summer. "Why not see what the possibilities are for doing it in the summer? Whether it's summer or winter doesn't matter to us, as long as we take care and provide the right atmosphere to host an event like this," he said.
Regarding the construction of new stadiums and the violation of workers' rights, as was the case in Qatar: "I promise that this will not happen again. We have 10 years to work on it, we've already started in a lot of places."
And what about the process of winning the tender, when Sconference's bid was accepted without competing bids, with the assumption and understanding that it was rigged in advance and closed with FIFA? "It's just a theory," he said. "Everyone was clear about the rules, there was transparency, nobody opposed the process, so I don't think there was a lack of transparency on the part of FIFA. More than 125 federations that support the Saudi proposal... The world also wants us to host 2034."
And what about the big and disproportionate money in the Saudi league, which over the past year has brought stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Angolo Kante and Ruben Neves, among others, with an investment of about $<> billion? "I think the Premier League did exactly that and that's how they started. And no one doubted them when they did it," Prince Abdulaziz said.
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