In an off-field victory for human rights, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has reversed its sponsorship plans with Visit Saudi, Saudi Arabia’s state tourism authority, for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. The Women’s World Cup is the flagship global women’s football event and has long been a moment to celebrate women’s rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and inclusion.
FIFA’s decision to award Visit Saudi sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup showed shocking disregard for the repression and suffering of Saudi Arabia’s courageous women’s rights defenders, which top female players rightly condemned as an “own goal.”
Saudi Arabia is a global outlier on women’s rights and also violates the rights of LGBT people. As recently as 2018, women and girls were barred from sport in schools – or even watching sporting events in stadiums. On International Women’s Day in 2022, Saudi authorities passed Saudi Arabia’s first Personal Status Law, which codifies repressive male guardianship rules and includes discriminatory provisions against women concerning marriage, divorce, and decisions about their children. In August 2022, Saudi Arabia sentenced Salma Al-Shehab, a Saudi doctoral student who had been studying in the United Kingdom, to 34 years in prison for her use of Twitter.
Human Rights Watch has documented Saudi Arabia’s longstanding practice of “sportswashing,” which involves spending billions of dollars hosting major sporting, entertainment, and cultural events as a deliberate strategy to deflect criticism from the country’s pervasive and systemic violations of human rights.
Human Rights Watch wrote to FIFA on February 3 to underscore the contradiction between Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Authority sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup and the football body’s claims that human rights are a key part of its values. We also asked FIFA what consultation with players, host nations, and other stakeholders it undertook before signing off on the sponsorship deal. FIFA has not replied to the letter.
FIFA has incorporated human rights since 2016 and adopted a human rights policy stating that “human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials.” In practice, it has not always lived up to these pledges.
Women football players are right to protest that their game was being monetized by FIFA, without safety, access, equal pay for equal work, consultation, or permission.
FIFA’s decision to reverse the Visit Saudi sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup should be a first step toward consistent due diligence and remedy on human rights across all of its operations.