Saudi Arabia Positioning Itself as a Viable 2030 World Cup Co-Host

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sitting next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the opening game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, when his team was not playing, has fueled speculation that the kingdom wants to host the 2030 World Cup. Rumors of a joint bid with Egypt and Greece are swirling.

“This rumor, which is unsubstantiated at the moment, does have legs,” said Simon Chadwick (professor of sport and geopolitical economy, SKEMA Business School). “[Hosting] is entirely consistent with what Saudi Arabia has been trying to do in football and more generally in policy terms over the last seven years … It is realistic to think that Saudi Arabia and two partners are a genuine possibility for 2030.”

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MBS has the money and motivation needed to pull off a successful bid; having an ally in Infantino, who is capable of currying support amongst voters, doesn’t hurt either.

Three countries or groups of countries have officially announced their bids to host the 2030 World Cup: Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay; Spain, Portugal and Ukraine; and Morocco. The host(s) will be named in 2024. An attempt to reach FIFA for comment went unanswered.

JWS’ Take: Around 2015, Saudi Arabia decided to increase its investment in the sport and put some political will behind its effort to improve on the soccer pitch. There was a general feeling within the country at the time that it was “punching below [its] weight” when it came to the sport, Chadwick said.

Since then, there has been a noticeable boost in the commercialization of the top Saudi soccer clubs, and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund led a consortium that bought Newcastle United of the English Premier League.

Saudi Arabia’s World Cup group stage win over Argentina on Nov. 22, one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, seemingly validates the country’s investment in soccer. It is also likely to embolden Saudi decision-makers in their pursuit of hosting the 2030 World Cup.

“One of the things that caught my eye [following the win] is the amount of positive social media coverage that Saudi Arabia has received,” Chadwick said. “That influence is exactly what Saudi Arabia is seeking to achieve through its investment program in sport.”

Saudi Arabia is also working to position itself as an Afro-EurAsian hub. Including Greece (Europe) and Egypt (Africa) in its bid would be consistent with that motivation.

The 2030 tournament aligns with the maturation date on Saudi Arabia’s strategic plan for the future, Vision 2030. MBS could gain some political capital if he is able to deliver the country the “World Cup as a tangible manifestation of what Saudi Arabia is trying to do,” Chadwick said.

In addition to the $40 billion-plus it will take to bring the FIFA World Cup back to the Middle East, the Saudis are reportedly prepared to fund any stadium or infrastructure improvements necessary for Greece and Egypt to co-host. Chadwick said that is a noteworthy change in Saudi government policy. “We’re seeing, for the first time, a deliberate attempt to engage in sports diplomacy,” Chadwick said.

“Saudi Arabia is essentially promising to leave a legacy of stadium infrastructure in three countries where there are large numbers of football fans.”

Many soccer purists believe the 2030 World Cup should pay tribute to tournament history and return to Uruguay, which hosted the first World Cup in 1930.

The counter-argument is that the world has changed since 1930 and that the 100th anniversary tournament should be reflective of the diversity that exists in the game today. “If Infantino, the consummate diplomat, can say to the association who is going to vote for this based on equity, fairness and democracy, that instead of taking the event to one country or one confederation [he is] going to take it to three confederations simultaneously,’” it is going to be hard to vote against the Saudi-led bid, Chadwick said.

To win the 2030 World Cup, Saudi Arabia will need to continue cracking down on piracy. The PIF is reportedly considering a bid for beIN Media Group. Chadwick said having an investment in the established broadcaster would be helpful in eliminating the issue.

If the Saudi-led bid is not selected for 2030, Saudi Arabia will likely bid for the 2034 or 2038 rendition. However, its chances of getting the tournament decline significantly if China is involved in the process.

China, long believed to be the favorite to host the 2030 tournament, is seemingly now out of the equation. The country is not a “realistic contender right now,” because of COVID-19, Chadwick said. “It would make sense for FIFA to award [2030] to Saudi Arabia and not face the prospect of a Saudi Arabia versus China standoff” in the future.

Saudi Arabia is playing Mexico on Wednesday afternoon in its final group stage game. A win will put the Saudis through to the knockout round of the World Cup for the first time since 1994.

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