Saudi Sponsorship Catches Women’s World Cup Hosts by Surprise

“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.”