Saudi Arabia’s Secret Plan to Buy World Cup Politico

Saudi Arabia has offered to pay for new sports stadiums in Greece and Egypt if they agree to a joint bid with the oil-rich Gulf heavyweight to host the 2030 soccer World Cup, Politico can reveal.

In return, the Saudis would stage three-quarters of all matches under the proposed deal.

The dramatic offer – possibly worth billions of euros in construction costs – was discussed in a private conversation between Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the summer of 2022, according to a senior official familiar with the matter. matters.

A second senior official with personal knowledge of the bid told Politico that Saudi Arabia is prepared to “fully underwrite” Greece and Egypt to host, but that 75 percent of the massive 48-team tournament will be held in the Gulf itself. status.

It is unclear whether the offer was taken up. But the three countries are now working on a joint proposal to host the 2030 tournament, a move that has sparked backlash from Greece.

Riyadh’s megabucks offer to Greece, reported here for the first time, will fuel criticism that Saudi Arabia is trying to use its astronomical wealth to buy the World Cup by creating a trans-continental alliance to effectively take advantage of the voting system.

In an attempt to convince members of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, of the merits of the Saudi-led bid, the proposed tournament would feature matches across three continents, providing geographic balance. The Middle East’s sole World Cup bid is unlikely to succeed just eight years after Qatar hosts the tournament in 2022.

The Saudis’ main rivals are a joint Spain, Portugal and Ukraine bid from Europe and a South American bid from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile.

The decision on who will host the 2030 World Cup comes from a public vote by the entire FIFA Congress, made up of more than 200 member associations from around the world. If African countries, attracted by Egypt’s presence and Saudi investment around Africa, rally behind the bid and Asian countries do the same, while Greece rejects some European votes, the Saudi-led proposal would have a strong chance of winning.

Politico has reached out to all three governments for comment. The Greek and Saudi governments declined to comment, and the Egyptian government did not respond to Politico’s requests. FIFA also declined to comment.

‘New World Order’

Hosting the World Cup will be the culmination of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious strategy to dominate major sporting events. Successes include winning the rights to host world championship boxing bouts, European football and Formula One motor races, as well as creating its own Rebel Golf Tour. Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund has also bought a prominent English football club and the country will host football’s Asian Cup for the first time in 2027.

But Saudi Arabia’s desire to host the World Cup goes beyond sporting prestige, according to one regional expert.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi lifts the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 winner’s trophy after the team’s victory during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 | Julian Feeney/Getty Images

“Saudi Arabia is strategically trying to position itself as an Afro-Eurasian hub – the center of a new world order,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sports and geopolitical economy at Schema Business School in Paris, said of the Saudi-fronted bid. “This position will enable Saudi Arabia to exert significant power and influence across a large geographic area, which it seeks to achieve by building relationships with key partners.”

“A multilateral staging of the World Cup with Egypt and Greece would not be altruistic or grandiose. Rather, it will be part of a larger plan, which the government in Riyadh is enabling through a potential stadium gift,” he added.

The move by tournament host Saudi has sparked outrage among human rights monitors, who have cited the country’s brutal treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and migrant workers.

“Saudi Arabia’s repression should not be rewarded with a World Cup,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Until Saudi Arabia discriminates against LGBT people and punishes women for human rights violations, and provides protections for migrant workers who will build the majority of new stadiums and facilities, the country will not be able to meet human rights requirements that FIFA has already made. is in place.”

Qatar’s 2022 World Cup was marred by criticism of the Gulf state for its treatment of migrant workers.

bad memories

In Greece, funding for sports infrastructure is a touchy subject, where it is seen as a monument to government fraud.

In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympic Games, where Greece spent around €9 billion. However, much of the infrastructure was abandoned after the Olympic flame was extinguished.

As the country entered a decade-long depression and had to resort to bailout programs to avoid bankruptcy, the Olympics became a source of anger for Greeks who questioned whether the games had pushed their country further into recession. Nearly two decades after the Olympic extravaganza, many of the 30 venues remain unused, and some have been demolished.

Since coming to power in 2019, Greece’s conservative New Democracy government has sought to deepen ties with Saudi and other Gulf states in response to arch-rival Turkey’s expansionist policies in the region.

Mitsotakis has visited Riyadh multiple times, Greece has provided military equipment and troops to Saudi Arabia and, in July last year, Athens became the first EU capital visited by bin Salman since he personally approved, according to US intelligence, the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Bin Salman, who is back in the West’s good books due to an energy crisis stemming from Russia’s war on Ukraine, signed several bilateral deals in Athens last summer, pledging to turn Greece into an energy hub for supplying “green hydrogen”. “

Saudi Arabia has traditionally enjoyed close diplomatic relations with Egypt. Bin Salman met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo last June where he signed a billion-euro investment deal and discussed “bilateral, regional cooperation”.

The decision to host the World Cup 2030 will be made in 2024, with the bidding process officially beginning later this year.

Nektaria Stamouli and Nicolas Kamut contributed reporting.