‘Saudi Arabia hosting the World Cup would tell LGBTQ+ fans we don’t matter’

While FIFA hasn't officially announced the 2034 host, Saudi Arabia is currently the only contender.

‘Saudi Arabia hosting the World Cup would tell LGBTQ+ fans we don’t matter’
LGBTQ+ fans/groups on Saudi Arabia hosting World Cup 2034
Althoughthe Islamic state hasn’t been officially named as the host, LGBTQ+ footie fans are already planning to boycott (Picture: Metro.co.uk/Getty)

How Arthur Webber, an avid football fan from London, reacted to the news that Saudi Arabia is expected to hold the World Cup in 2034 is not safe for work.

A freelance writer, 25-year-old Arthur captains and plays for TRUK United FC, Europe’s first football team of all trans men – something his younger self could hardly believe.

So, he tells Metro.co.uk, the message FIFA, football’s governing body, is sending to football fans and players like him is all too clear.

‘I initially used language not suitable to print,’ he says, recalling when he first read the news of who may now be hosting the lucrative competition this week.

‘I feel it tells LGBTQ+ fans that ultimately we don’t matter and that money will win over any commitment to advancing equality in football.

‘I also believe it tells the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia that FIFA thinks the treatment of them by their government is OK, as long as the government pays FIFA a lot of money.’

While FIFA hasn’t officially announced the 2034 host of the world’s most-watched sporting tournament, Saudi Arabia is currently the only contender after Australia pulled out following concerns they wouldn’t get enough votes from FIFA’s 211 federations across the world.

In light of the news, Newcastle United’s manager Eddie Howe has given his approval, saying it was ‘really good’, and that he would expect a World Cup in Saudi Arabia to be well organised having previously travelled there with his team. The club has used training camps in Riyadh and Jeddah since it was taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF)in October 2021.

For many though, the prospect of Saudi Arabia holding the World Cup has brought renewed attention on the nation’s human rights – including their lack of LGBTQ+rights.

According to Equaldex, which monitors LGBTQ+ rights, queer Saudis face the death penalty or jail under Sharia law if they engage in same-sex sexual acts.

Arthur Webb about to kick the ball
Arthur Weber has no plans to tune into the World Cup if it’s held in Saudi (Picture: Lucy Copsey)

While there is no law explicitly against trans people, anyone caught ‘cross-dressing’ can be jailed (foreigners can be deported) and gender-affirming surgery is banned.

The kingdom had long made its hopes to stage the World Cup clear, with its de facto leader since 2022, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announcing his offer only minutes after FIFA kicked off the bidding process.

After all, the nation announced a public holiday after beating Argentina in the World Cup last year. Not a big surprise, given football is Saudi’s most popular sport.

However, according to Amnesty International, under Bin Salman, the authorities have also jailed peaceful activists, carried out record numbers of executions (196 people last year alone) and women suffer routine discrimination.

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of priority campaigns and individuals at risk, has accused the Gulf nation of ‘sports washing’ – an attempt to use lavish athletic celebrations as a smoke-screen.

‘Anyone familiar with Saudi sports washing shouldn’t be at all surprised by this turn of events,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Preview - Doha, Qatar - November 13, 2022 General view of a replica World Cup trophy outside the Al Thumama Stadium REUTERS/John Sibley
The World Cup being held in Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation, touched off a wave of concern among LGBTQ+ advocates (Picture: Reuters)

‌’Under Mohammed bin Salman’s rule, we’ve seen Saudi Arabia become increasingly ambitious in its use of sport to try to rebrand itself, while at the same time, the Saudi authorities have been pursuing an utterly ruthless crackdown on human rights.’

According to FIFA’s Bidding Regulations, which were developed with the UN’s human rights agency, countries offering to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cups had to commit to ‘respecting internationally recognised human rights’.

This includes FIFA officials evaluating human rights risks in the nation and contractual obligations for all organisers to respect them.

The host country’s government and city authorities must also document their commitment to ensuring that hosting the tournament would not ‘involve adverse impacts on internationally recognised human rights’.

But in Saudi, men overwhelmingly control women’s rights, freedom of expression is muffled and being gay is a crime.

Felix adds: ‘Without sustained pressure from FIFA and other bodies ahead of 2034, it’s currently hard to see how Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record won’t be directly at odds with FIFA’s own responsibilities and standards on human rights.’

(FILES) In this handout file picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on December 14, 2021. - From greeting foreign leaders to heading regional summits, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is taking over the reins from his ageing father, going from de facto ruler to an uncrowned king. (Photo by Bandar AL-JALOUD / Saudi Royal Palace / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT
Crown Prince Mohammed has been on the throne since 2022 (Picture: AFP)

Liz Ward, programmes director at Stonewall, says she can’t quite believe the queer football community is in the same position as last year.

Qatar became the first Arab and Muslim country to stage the World Cup in 2022, but rights groups wasted little time criticising the event given the state’s treatment of migrant labourers and LGBTQ+ people.

‘This is the latest in the long line of Men’s World Cups being awarded to nations where LGBTQ+ safety has been disregarded or deprioritised,’ she explains.

‘From countries with severe anti-LGBTQ laws such as Qatar to countries where living an LGBTQ+ is impossible, such as Russia, to even the US where we are seeing an unprecedented cascade of anti-trans legislation, this is simply unacceptable.’

FIFA was forced to tow a cautious line around Qatar, balancing concerns from activists about the three-year-long jail terms LGBTQ+ Qataris can face without upsetting the host nation.

Qatari officials shrugged off such worries, stressing that the nation was an inclusive country where ‘everyone is welcome’.

Saudi’s tourism bureau says the same. LGBTQ+ people are ‘welcome to visit’ the country as long as ‘they follow and respect our culture, traditions and laws’.

Saudi football fans wave their country's flags from vehicles
Football is the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia (Picture: AFP)

However, Jack Duncan, 35, a gay travel business owner, is a bit more cautious in his advice to LGBTQ+ World Cup hopefuls.

‘I absolutely hate advising queer people to hide who they are for their own safety, the onus here should be on FIFA to stop rewarding anti-queer regimes with the rights to host such an important event,’ says Jack, who lives in Wandsworth, south-west London.

‘So, my advice is the same as Qatar 2022: don’t go.’

Many LGBTQ+ football fans told Metro.co.uk last year that they had no plans to travel to the tiny emirate for the World Cup.

For Arthur, it’s a no-brainer about Saudi Arabia. Expressing solidarity with queer Saudis is more important than catching the game he loves.

‘I think attending the matches would be giving my ok to the sportswashing of the atrocities that the Saudi government commits against our community,’ he says.

‘At the last World Cup, I watched matches at fundraisers held for the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar, so I think if similar events occurred for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia I would watch then.’

Amnesty International’s Felix Jankens adds that all hope isn’t lost, though.

‘FIFA needs to learn one of the key lessons of the Qatar World Cup – which is that it must secure clear and binding commitments from Saudi Arabia over significantly improving its human rights record if it’s to be allowed to host the world’s most prestigious football tournament,’ he says.

For some though, even if money weren’t an object, the 2034 World Cup will be a no-go.

Ptolemy Horner, 19, a bisexual sports journalism student at Staffordshire University, says he wouldn’t bother booking flights. ‘Not only do they not accept us, they look down upon us,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Everyone should be accepted in the world’s sport, football.’

FIFA declined to comment. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism has been contacted for comment.

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