The 2034 FIFA World Cup looks set to become the crown jewel in Saudi Arabia’s much-scrutinized and much-maligned global sports project.

The Saudis are a shoo-in to host world football’s biggest showpiece after Australia pulled out of the race at the 11th hour. It is a big deal.

In all honesty, even if Australia had thrown their hat in the ring, the dominant opinion is that Saudi Arabia would still have been the favourites to win the race. It’s the final piece of the jigsaw, the final part of a grand scheme meticulously planned and executed.

Passing the test

Of course Saudi Arabia will still have to tick all the boxes of the bidding requirements and satisfy a stringent set of conditions before they are officially confirmed as hosts. The consensus is that that should be a formality, despite misgivings and critics beating the old drum about rights and sportswashing.

The decision to award the hosting rights to Saudi Arabia will invite more scrutiny on the country’s  political regime. The same questions and more directed at Qatar will be posed to the Saudis.

We can expect Saudi Arabia to be asked to give a full basket of assurances and guarantees in exchange for the final seal of approval. There will be a mandatory check list; human rights, the welfare of World Cup project workers, respect for individuals’ choices, especially rights around sexual preferences and orientation.

Theoretically, Saudi Arabia could still fail the test. In reality, however, the risk of being disqualified for current sins, real and perceived, is almost zero. Instead, they will be cajoled and encouraged to clean up their act to placate the critics.

Because they want is so badly, Saudi Arabia will do whatever it takes to pass the fit and proper test. Encouragingly for the would-be hosts, FIFA has shown that it is amenable to the idea of taking the game to new destinations and will find just the right sporting justifications for awarding the hosting rights to Saudi Arabia. After all, FIFA are the beautiful game’s custodians and evangelists, charged with taking the game to the four corners of the world, so that football may continue to grow and find favour with new converts.

FIFA is also very adept at ignoring the noise and riding out scandals. They will find ways to sell Saudi Arabia’s candidature, not that the Saudis need any ‘selling’. They have a plan and they are executing it, target by target, milestone by milestone.

Another feather in the cap

The announcement that Saudi Arabia are poised to host the 2034 World Cup was one of the worst kept secrets in world sports. In fact, there was a sense of inevitability about it.

Hosting the World Cup will be the crowning glory of the Saudis’ protracted and deliberate use of sport as the spearhead of their attack on new economic frontiers. It will boost their diplomatic clout and swell their soft power coffers.

As they continue to insinuate themselves into global sports, the Saudis have long ceased to be bothered by talk about what detractors believe are their real motives. They are proceeding with stoic determination, eyes firmly on the prize. They are happy to embrace the sportswashing tag as long as the project continues to open new economic opportunities to boost their GDP.

Of course the usual narrative about sportswashing will be rehashed and FIFA will be accused of aiding and abetting an errant political regime and criticised for being part to a plot to use football to lend legitimacy to unsavory political characters.

That will not bother either FIFA or Saudi Arabia. The Saudis will maintain their usual stoicism in the face of sanctimonious shrills. They will continue to scoff at suggestions that sport is nothing but a tool for cleaning their image.

If you can’t beat them…

The world is also slowly realizing that inclusion is better than exclusion, that it is better to work with than against Saudi Arabia. In any case, the Saudis have already demonstrated that if excluded, they have the resources to fund parallel tournaments as they did with golf before forcing a merger.

And as we continue to witness in sport and other spheres of life, half the time the morality of money trumps all other moralities. The Saudis are investing in and raking up serious sporting influence and sport is willing to take the money.

More than just sportswashing

It is no longer enough to see Saudi Arabia’s sports project as sportswashing. In fact, persisting with that narrative is lazy. There is something much bigger than image laundering going on here.

For Saudi Arabia the World Cup is not some vanity project by a country with an inordinate amount of resources, but a strategic milestone in the quest for equal partnership and a prominent seat at global sport’s top table.

The Saudis have been building up to the big one with a series of sporting acquisitions, extending their tentacles to Formula One, Golf, football and by offering themselves as major sporting events’ host of choice.

Surely even the diehard moralists not enamored of the country’s political regime must grudgingly admire Saudi Arabia’s single-mindedness of purpose and the systematic and dogged pursuit of goals. The Saudis are methodical and have their ducks in a row.

If they are not doing it already, very soon business schools will be using Saudi Arabia as a cases study. Course modules will be designed on how to leverage a country’s vast economic resources to get a foothold and influence in global sport.

Saudi Arabia’s sports project is a compelling study in strategic planning and execution, a lesson in setting project targets and milestones and how to go about accumulating influence.

The privilege to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup will be Saudi Arabia’s holy grail.


I'm Barrie Jarrett, born in Leeds, lived over a decade in South Africa, CEO And Co Founder of Planet Sport Limited and Planet Bet Limited.

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