Saudi Arabia’s tourist authority is to sponsor football’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this year, despite the country’s history of oppression of women’s rights.
Fifa is expected to confirm that Visit Saudi will join international brands such as Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa in attaching its name to the 32-team tournament that will kick off in front of an expected 50,000 supporters at Auckland’s Eden Park on 20 July.
The deal has been agreed under Fifa’s new “commercial partnership structure” dedicated to developing revenues specifically for the women’s game, with funds generated from the World Cup going back into the sport. There will be some scepticism over the suitability of the arrangement, owing to repression of women’s freedoms in the Gulf state.
A number of legal changes have improved women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in recent years, including the end of a ban on driving and amendments to the oppressive guardianship law that would allow, for the first time, women to apply for official documents such as a passport and to travel abroad independently.
The guardianship law has not been abolished, however, and women still need the consent of a man to get married and obtain certain forms of healthcare. Male guardians can also bring legal action against women for ‘disobedience’ and being absent from home.
Women’s football in the country has seen unequivocal change. A decade ago, Saudi officials were calling for a ban on the hijab in football, which would have prevented observant women from playing the game, and in 2017 women were still banned from attending matches as spectators. Last year, however, Saudi Arabia were supported by many female fans at the men’s World Cup in Qatar and the first nationwide league for women in Saudi Arabia was established in 2020.
Saudi hosted and won a four-team tournament this month, which earned the women’s national team their first placing on Fifa’s rankings.
The Women’s World Cup hopes to accelerate the growth of the women’s game across the world, with an expanded number of competing nations and a tournament split over two countries for the first time. Fifa announced on Monday it had relocated the opening match in the Australian leg of the tournament to the 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia because of high demand for tickets.
“Fifa’s mission is to organise the biggest and best Women’s World Cup in history this year and fans, those who bring colour, passion and atmosphere to stadiums will be such an integral part of the tournament’s success,” said Fifa’s secretary general, Fatma Samoura. “With this in mind, we have taken a decision that will enable over 100,000 fans to attend the opening match day”