Title fights, the best footballers and golfers, winter sports, and now the FIFA World Cup—Saudi Arabia’s grip on the sporting world is tightening.
After Australia became the latest country to withdraw their candidacy, Saudi Arabia will host the men’s football World Cup in 2034 without vote or opposition. The decision was the cherry on the cake of a month which has also seen Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo watch heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury beat Francis Ngannou in Riyadh and Saudi-owned Newcastle United beat Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
In November, the logo of state-owned Saudi oil company Aramco will be all over the Cricket World Cup final in Ahmedabad, India, just as it is in every Formula One race from Australia to Azerbaijan, and in dozens of other high profile sporting events across the globe—from wrestling to horse racing, and eSports to sailing. That is not to mention LIV Golf.
Indeed, data provided to DW from Danish initiative, Play the Game, whose stated aim is to promote “democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport”, reveals that Aramco currently have at least 26 sporting sponsorships. Only Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund which owns Newcastle and boasts 137 sponsorships either directly or via its subsidiaries, has a greater chunk of the total 323 Saudi sponsorships in sport identified in the detailed analysis.
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Both Aramco and PIF are state-owned. This muddying of the waters between state and sport is further polluted by a number of key individuals who wield enormous diplomatic and political power on one hand, while casting significant sporting influence with the other.
Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud is one of those people. A member of the ruling Saudi royal family, Princess Reema also holds four official, high-ranking titles within sport, according to Play the Game’s research.
“She projects Saudi Arabia in the image that [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman wants Saudi Arabia to be projected,” James Dorsey, Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, tells DW. “That is: more forward-looking, socially-liberal, granting women opportunities, and so on. She’s achieving that, and is the perfect candidate.”
Her roles also include being Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador to the US, the head of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with many observers believing the Olympics to be Saudi Arabia’s next sporting target.
“This type of formal relationship between a leader of a National Olympic Committee (NOC) and a national government raises critical questions about conflicts of interest, questions of allegiance, and the so-called autonomy of sport that the Olympic movement so ardently promotes,” says Stanis Elsborg of Play the Game. “Will she be willing and able to effectively uphold the autonomy of the NOC as a politician and government representative if a situation arises where the interests of the Saudi government and those of the Olympic movement diverge politically?”
While the IOC would not facilitate a DW request for an interview with Princess Reema, the organisation sent a statement which said that all their members meet the criteria applied to them. It also pointed out that “no actual or potential conflict of interest situation has been noted so far” since the inception of an internal “electronic tool” in 2020, adding that should any conflicts arise, they would be dealt with by “the CECO [Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer], and fully disclosed to the IOC Executive Board”.
However, the IOC’s own Charter states that members must “act independently of commercial and political interests as well as any racial or religious consideration.”
Maintaining distance from political interests appears to be the most delicate of balancing acts for Princess Reema. The 48-year-old is the daughter of Bandar bin Sultan Al-Saud, who was also—among other high-ranking intelligence and security posts—Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, and Haifa bint Faisal Al-Saud, the daughter of a Saudi King (and Prime Minister) and Queen.
Princess Reema is also, therefore, the great-granddaughter of Ibn Saud, regarded as the founder of modern Saudi Arabia on both paternal and maternal sides.
A warrior for women?
Her father’s work in the US saw the princess, one of eight children, educated in the States, graduating from George Washington University with a degree in museum studies.
Before she made her impact in sport, the princess had worked in high-end retail and was praised for social enterprises that were often purported to offer greater chances to women in a country widely accepted to have a poor record on women’s rights. In the past, the princess has pointed to the admission of women in to some football stadiums as a sign of progress.
“We are working with all of the [Saudi Arabian sports] Federations to include women, not just as athletes, but also on the board level, advisory level and in the administration,” the princess told ESPN in a rare interview in 2018. “In our community we’re not yet used to gender integration, and it’s going to come, but we need to look out for ourselves. Appointing women to look out for other women is critical. And it expands job opportunities.”
While acknowledging that Saudi Arabia was “one of the most repressive regimes in the region”, author and academic James Dorsey says that the situation is improving for women. “Whatever one thinks of Mohammed bin Salman, the fact of the matter is that he has significantly enhanced women’s social rights, as well as opportunity for women. You see a lot more women prominently in government and private sector positions.”
Exception, not the rule?
Nevertheless, none have quite the reach of Princess Reema, whose family background has allowed her troubling access and power, says Stanis Elsborg of Play the Game, who perceives a conflict of interests. “Her roles allow Saudi Arabia to engage in sports diplomacy, cultivate international relationships, establish new diplomatic ties, and shape its image on the global sports scene.”
For Dorsey, however, that conflict is a by-product of the way the country operates. “Let’s face it, all of these ruling families are corrupt by definition. They became wealthy by corruption. There was no distinction between the state budget and their budget,” he says. “In other words, the concept of conflict of interest doesn’t exist.”
While Princess Reema’s high-powered roles may look inspiring to women in Saudi Arabia, or polish the image of the state in the eyes of individuals, states or sporting institutions abroad, the chances of any woman not born into the royal lineage ascending to that type of power seem slim.
While there are pockets of misgiving about the way the likes of the Princess Reema, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, and Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Saud operate, there’s no doubt that it is effective. The World Cup announcement by FIFA President and Princess Reema’s IOC colleague, Gianni Infantino, was proof of that in more ways than one.