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Saudi Arabia set to sponsor Fifa Women's World Cup amid mounting controversy

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has imprisoned dozens of women's rights activists even as it has promoted social reform
The Women's Fifa World Cup trophy (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia looks set to be unveiled as a major sponsor of this year's Fifa Women's World Cup in Australia, in a deal first reported by The Athletic.

This July, Fifa's Women's World Cup will kick off across 10 stadiums in Australia and New Zealand, and will be the first women's cup to have 32 teams competing. 

Despite the great strides women's football has made in recent years, including the US women's football team (the former World Cup champions) officially winning equal pay, the announcement that Visit Saudi, the Gulf nation's tourist board, will headline as a sponsor is already drawing condemnation. 

The kingdom has been criticised in recent years for the widespread arrest of women's rights activists in the country, and campaigners have warned that the new sponsorship is another attempt by Saudi Arabia to launder its reputation.

"After Cristiano Ronaldo's signing, the purchase of Newcastle United, the LIV golf series and the country's hosting of numerous high-profile sporting events, Saudi Arabia's use of sport to try to mask its terrible human rights record is now a depressingly well-established pattern," Amnesty International said in a statement.

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Visit Saudi is set to join other international brands such as Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa under Fifa's new "commercial partnership structure", which is looking to cultivate revenue streams exclusively for women's football. 

One social media user called the latest announcement on Saudi a "sick joke" from Fifa, adding that the "Saudi regime's tourism arm is sponsoring the 2023 Women's World Cup while the country continues to impose travel bans against Saudi women human rights defenders."

Political repression

Saudi Arabia only established its national women's football team in 2020. In addition, women were not allowed to enter public stadiums until 2018, which was the year that women were also allowed to drive. 

It wasn't until 2012 that Saudi sent a woman to compete at the Olympics. 

In recent years Saudi Arabia, under its de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has grabbed headlines for relaxing certain laws on women's rights, concerts and cinemas.

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Even as MBS clamps down on women's rights activists, Saudi Arabia has sought to project itself as a country in the throes of a social revolution, especially by using the medium of sport.  

When the kingdom announced in November last year that Golf Saudi would increase its prize money for the Aramco Saudi Ladies International tournament to $5m, matching the men's prize money, it was lauded as a groundbreaking step in women's rights. 

That hasn't stopped MBS, however, from ratcheting up political oppression.

Last year, a Leeds University PhD candidate and mother of two was sentenced to 34 years in prison, the longest sentence ever given to a women's rights defender in the kingdom. 

When she was detained, Salma al-Shehab was on holiday in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 and planned to return to the United Kingdom

In 2021 a Saudi prison guard based in Dhabhan prison, north of Jeddah, provided Human Rights Watch with evidence that prisoners such as women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul were subjected to violent treatment, including electric shocks, beatings, whippings and sexual threats.

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