MELBOURNE, Australia — Before their presence was first permitted by an easing of government restrictions in 2018, women in Saudi Arabia who slipped inside public stadiums to watch soccer games risked being arrested. So published news reports this week that the kingdom, via its Visit Saudi tourism brand, had reached a deal with world soccer’s governing body to become a prominent sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup were met on Wednesday with a sense of startled dismay.
Players, fans and supporters of the tournament, the largest women’s sporting event ever held in Australia and New Zealand, scrambled to understand what to them appeared an uneasy corporate marriage between Saudi Arabia and FIFA, world soccer’s global governing body. And local World Cup organizers, blindsided by the news, were demanding an explanation.
“We are very disappointed that Football Australia were not consulted on this matter prior to any decision being made,” a spokeswoman for Football Australia, the country’s governing body for soccer, said in a statement. Football Australia said its leaders, and those of its New Zealand counterpart “have jointly written to FIFA to urgently clarify the situation.”
FIFA did not respond to messages seeking comment. A representative of the Saudi Tourism Authority did not immediately respond to a similar request.
Others, particularly in Australia, saw little to clarify. They suggested a Visit Saudi sponsorship for a women’s championship was just the latest example of what critics have described as an effort by a government to use money to finance the kind of reputation-cleansing efforts derided as “sportswashing,” and of FIFA’s willingness to be an active partner.
“Saudi Arabia sponsoring a global women’s sporting event is like Exxon sponsoring COP28 or McDonald’s a healthy eating or anti-obesity symposium,” said Craig Foster, a former captain of Australia’s men’s soccer team whose human rights advocacy has at times made him a vocal critic of FIFA. “It is perfectly in line with FIFA’s thirst for money at any cost and complete disregard for its human rights policy, let alone principles.”
When it came to FIFA, Foster added, “concepts like gender equality are only as durable as the amount of money received from abusing companies or countries, and inevitably, money wins.”
Others, however, said Saudi sponsorships in sports like soccer, golf, boxing and wrestling, along with its investments in business, entertainment and the arts and an expansion of opportunities for women across society, represent a broader push by the Saudi government to diversify its oil-dependent economy and boost its importance on the world stage.
“It’s part of a far larger strategy, across various sports, irrespective of gender, which is designed to, as Saudi Arabia wants to do with everything, make it the regional center of gravity,” said James M. Dorsey, a scholar at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
“Yes, it is about image, but it’s about positioning the kingdom as a powerhouse,” he added.
In the last five years, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a key power player in soccer, cultivating a close relationship with the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, and investing billions in events, programs and partnerships (as well as in the acquisition of a Premier League soccer team). FIFA, meanwhile, has sought to increase investment in the women’s game, which despite its growth continues to receive a fraction of the financial support that underwrites the men’s game.
At the same time, led by its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has sought to burnish its reputation as the kind of country one might associate with major global sporting events, and where Lionel Messi might choose to vacation, rather than as a conservative monarchy that murders dissidents, according to United States intelligence, and imprisons citizens for their activity on social media.
“There is an evident desire by the elite, very much driven by Mohammed bin Salman, to exact an enormous kind of cultural revolution in a really short time frame,” said David B. Roberts, a scholar of the region at King’s College London. “At the same time, you have qualitative changes that no one thought remotely plausible or possible, with the comparative or significant emancipation of women as independent economic actors in the kingdom.”
Winning over women’s soccer players and fans, and Australians, may be more difficult. Sydney, which has had a surging demand for tickets to the World Cup, is home to some of the world’s largest L.G.B.T.Q. pride events, including a three-week Mardi Gras festival, and some of the tournament’s most prominent players, including Sam Kerr, the captain of Australia’s women’s team, and her girlfriend, the United States midfielder Kristie Mewis, are gay.
L.G.B.T.Q. people in Saudi Arabia, as in many other parts of the Middle East, face discrimination and potentially arrest and prosecution.
“If these reports are true, they are deeply perplexing,” said Moya Dodd, a former vice-captain of Australia’s team who was from 2013 to 2017 among the first women to appear in FIFA’s governing board. “If FIFA is planning to take money to tell L.G.B.T.Q.+ fans and players to ‘Visit Saudi,’ it’s hard to see how this could pass responsible business principles, let alone meet FIFA’s own human rights obligations and policies,” Dodd added.