Saudi Arabia’s sports minister has told Sky News it would be Islamophobic to be forced by FIFA to sell alcohol if a World Cup is hosted in the country.
An ambitious bid for the 2030 tournament is being explored by the Saudis – jointly with Greece and Egypt – and they have not been deterred by the heavy scrutiny on human rights faced by current hosts Qatar.
Even though alcohol is in some bars across Doha, assurances it could be sold at World Cup stadiums were effectively dropped by Qatar just ahead of the tournament beginning last week.
Saudi Arabia is completely dry, which it believes should not be a barrier to hosting a World Cup.
Asked if it would be Islamophobic to impose alcohol requirements on a tournament, Saudi sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal told Sky News: “Yes, because the World Cup is for everyone.”
He added: “If you are against that, and you don’t feel like you’re going to enjoy your time coming, and you can’t respect that rule, then don’t come. It’s as simple as that.”
While saying the Saudis are “working towards a better future” after facing human rights criticism, no specific reforms were offered.
‘Saudi Arabia has changed a lot’
The murder by Saudi officials of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in 2018 contributed to rights groups opposing the purchase of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
The Saudi sovereign wealth fund is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to the US intelligence findings, he approved the killing of Mr Khashoggi, but he continues to deny involvement.
The Washington Post columnist’s remains have never been found – leading to ongoing questions about the suitability of Saudi Arabia to have a leading role in sport.
“Everyone was horrified by what happened and everyone condemned it in the kingdom,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
“What the government did in Saudi, they took action to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
He added: “We know that Saudi Arabia since a couple of years ago has changed a lot, too.
“We know that we’re changing towards the future.”
‘LGBT fans are welcome – but we have rules’
A World Cup bid could see Saudi Arabia breaching FIFA requirements to not discriminate against gay people – changes introduced in the fallout from the 2030 World Cup going to Qatar despite its anti-LGBT laws.
“They are welcome,” Prince Abdulaziz said during the interview in Doha.
“I’m sure they’ve come to some of our events. We don’t go around asking, ‘Are you gay or straight?’ Everyone’s welcome. There are rules that everyone respects.”
What are the rules?
He responded: “There are rules that everyone respects about our culture and how they have to abide by the culture that we have.
“So even men and women – they can’t show affection in public places, and so on. And that’s a regulation that we have that we need to respect. And we have to respect the culture.”
What are Qatar’s homosexuality laws?
Will women ever have equal rights?
Women have gained more rights in Saudi Arabia in recent years – and a women’s national team started this year. But women still face discrimination, including requiring a male guardian’s approval to get married.
Can women ever hope for equal rights with men in Saudi Arabia?
“It depends on what you mean by equal rights,” Prince Abdulaziz responded. “If this is a social issue that needs to be solved, it will be solved within Saudi Arabia.”
Equal rights is having the same rights, it’s pointed out.
He responded: “Do women have equal rights in the West? In terms of their job, salaries and so on.”
There is legislation in countries to ensure they should have.
“Maybe in some countries, in some countries different,” he continued. “This is an issue for the people in the country. I don’t think you would accept it if I come and tell you, you need to do 123, or else we won’t deal with you.”
Saudis ‘ready’ to host any tournament
There was no confirmation of a bid for the 2030 World Cup, with talks previously confirmed by potential partners Egypt and Greece.
The use of three countries on three different continents should not be a barrier, Prince Abdulaziz insisted, especially when considering the 2026 World Cup hosts.
He said: “The next World Cup will be in Canada, the US, and Mexico and I think the travelling between them is actually longer than the travelling between Saudi and Greece and Egypt.
“But I think we’ve learned a lot from hosting a lot of events in the past… and I think Saudi will be ready to host any international or big competitions or championships in the future.”