Saudi Arabia looks set to be the host of the 2034 World Cup after the only other country to have shown an interest in hosting — Australia — made a last-minute decision not to bid.
“We have reached the conclusion not to do so for the 2034 competition,” a statement from Football Australia said Tuesday, just hours before FIFA’s deadline for declarations of interest.
It puts Saudi Arabia on track to host the global soccer tournament a decade from now — a move that’s likely to be seen as highly controversial.
It would also make it only the second Arab Gulf country to ever host the World Cup, after Qatar did so in 2022.
The selection of Qatar as host angered many human rights activists, who accused the state of abusing migrant workers, endangering the lives of the LGBT community and stifling free speech. Qatar pushed back by insisting that everyone was welcome in the country and denying reports that thousands of workers had died building the stadiums, but said that it was entitled to set its own laws.
Some fans were also frustrated at the location, as the World Cup took place in the winter due to the Gulf region’s soaring summer temperatures.
The 2030 FIFA World Cup, meanwhile, will be hosted by Morocco, Spain and Portugal, with the three opening matches to be played in South America.
Saudi Arabia is criticized for its well-documented human rights violations, abuses of women’s rights and criminalization of homosexuality. Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia in 2022 oversaw the highest number of yearly executions in 30 years, with 196 people killed.
In response to an interview question about the kingdom’s human rights abuses, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that there are “bad laws” in the country he does “not like,” but that he cannot interfere with the judiciary. Saudi observers and rights activists have rejected that assertion.
The kingdom’s multi-billion dollar investment into sports and international sports events of the last few years — part of its Vision 2030 project aimed at diversifying its economy away from oil — has been described as “sportswashing” by human rights groups. To that, the Saudi leader said he doesn’t care, and is happy to continue “sportswashing” if it increases his country’s GDP.
Between early 2021 and June of 2023, the kingdom spent $6.1 billion on sports investments, an analysis by the Guardian found.
Saudi Arabia has in recent years made a series of high-profile sports acquisitions, including recruiting soccer legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to its local teams with contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Other recent big-name transfers include Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante and Kalidou Koulibaly, Lyon’s Moussa Dembele, and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez.
The huge investments have gone beyond soccer and include boxing, golf, auto racing and more. In June, news of a surprise merger between Saudi Arabia’s upstart LIV Golf tournament and the American PGA Tour sent shockwaves through the world of sports and angered many commentators, athletes, fans and even some U.S. lawmakers.