The princess at the center of Saudi Arabia’s sports network – DW – November 2nd, 2023

Now that the last potential competitor, Australia, has withdrawn its ambitions to host the World Cup in 2034, it is clear: Saudi Arabia will most likely host the 2034 World Cup. Since there is no opposing candidate after the deadline for officially submitting the application documents, there is no choice. FIFA President Gianni Infantino already congratulated on Instagram.

The quasi-World Cup award to the country, which is regularly criticized internationally for human rights violations and sportswashing, was a remarkable end to a month in which heavyweight boxing world champion Tyson Fury defeated challenger Francis Ngannou in front of Cristiano Ronaldo in the Saudi capital Riyadh hit. The English football club Newcastle United, which is owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, also beat Paris St. Germain, which is owned by Qatar, in the Champions League.

And it continues: In November, the logo of the state oil company Aramco will be omnipresent at the final of the Cricket World Cup in Ahmedabad, India, just as it is already in Formula 1 and many other top global sporting events. Not least in golf, where with the LIV series launched by Saudi Arabia there is a complete competition that the kingdom controls.

According to data from the Danish organization “Play the Game” available to DW, Aramco currently has at least 26 sponsorship activities in sports. Only the Saudi state fund Public Investment Fund (PIF), which also owns Newcastle United and which maintains 137 sponsorship activities either directly or through its subsidiaries, has an even larger share of the total of 323 Saudi sponsorship activities in sport identified in the detailed analysis .

Boxing match Tyson Fury - Francis Ngannou in Riyadh at the end of October 2023
Boxing match Tyson Fury against Francis Ngannou in Riyadh at the end of October 2023 Image: Yazeed Aldhawaihi/AP/picture alliance

Both Aramco and the PIF are wholly state-owned. And the connection between state and sport is further strengthened by a number of key figures who, on the one hand, wield enormous diplomatic and political power and, on the other, exercise significant influence over sport.

Powerful princess

One of these key figures is Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, a member of the Saudi ruling family. According to “Play the game” information, she holds four high-ranking sports official positions. “She embodies the image of Saudi Arabia [Kronprinz, Anm. d. Red.] “I want to transport Mohammed bin Salman,” James Dorsey from the “Middle East Institute” at the “National University of Singapore” told DW. “That means: more future-oriented, more socially liberal, giving women opportunities and so on,” explains Dorsey.

The princess is “the perfect candidate” for this. She is Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador to the United States, head of the country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) and National Paralympic Committee (NPC), and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Not least because of this, it is assumed that the Olympic Games will be Saudi Arabia’s next “sports destination” after the World Cup.

“This type of formal relationship between the head of a National Olympic Committee and a national government raises critical questions about conflicts of interest, questions of loyalty and the so-called autonomy of sport so vehemently promoted by the Olympic movement,” says Stanis Elsborg of “Play the Game”: “Will she be willing and able to protect the NOC’s autonomy as a politician and government representative if a situation arises in which the interests of the Saudi government and those of the Olympic movement diverge politically?”

Violation of the Olympic Charter?

A DW request for an interview with Princess Reema remained unanswered by the IOC. In a statement it said that all IOC members meet the applicable criteria. The IOC charter states that members “shall not allow themselves to be guided by political or business influences or by racial or religious considerations.” However, there must be doubts about Princess Reema’s independence from political influences.

The 48-year-old is the daughter of Bandar bin Sultan Al-Saud, who was also the Saudi ambassador to the US and has held a number of other high-ranking positions in the security and intelligence sectors in the past. And Haifa bint Faisal Al-Saud, daughter of two members of the royal family. Princess Reema is also the great-granddaughter of modern Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud.

Progress for women in sport?

Due to her father’s work as an ambassador, Princess Reema grew up as one of eight siblings in the USA and earned a degree in museum studies at George Washington University. Before she began working in sport, Reema was an entrepreneur and built a reputation for improving women’s opportunities in a country where women’s rights are poorly maintained.

Reema welcomed the occasional entry permit for women in Saudi football stadiums as a “sign of progress.” “The federations should include women not only as athletes, but also at the board level, the advisory level and in administration,” the princess told the US sports broadcaster ESPN in one of her rare interviews in 2018. Saudi Arabian society is “not yet used to equality and the integration of women into the public,” said Reema: “But that will come.”

Ambassador Reema Bint Bandar (l.) with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (r.) at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Ambassador Reema Bint Bandar (l.) with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (r.) at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi ArabiaImage: Amer Hilabi/Pool/AP/picture alliance

James Dorsey calls Saudi Arabia’s rulers “one of the most repressive regimes in the region” but also says the situation for women in the country is improving. “Whatever you think of Mohammed bin Salman, the fact is that he has significantly improved women’s social rights and opportunities for women,” Dorsey said. We are now seeing “many more women in leading positions in government and the private sector.”

Controversial and effective

Stanis Elsborg from “Play the Game” suspects that no other woman in Saudi Arabia has achieved as much power and influence as Princess Reema. Her family background has allowed her power and influence to a disturbing extent: “Her functions enable Saudi Arabia to engage in sports diplomacy, maintain international relations, establish new diplomatic relationships and shape its image on the global sports scene.”

For Dorsey, this concentration of power is typical of Saudi Arabia; the ruling families here and elsewhere are “corrupt by definition” and “got rich through corruption.” There was never a “distinction between the state budget and your budget,” he explains: “In other words: the concept of a conflict of interest does not exist.”

The way in which Saudi Arabia, with the help of Princess Reema, operates in international sport is highly controversial, but also very effective. The announcement of the awarding of the World Cup by FIFA President and IOC colleague of Princess Reema, Gianni Infantino, was further impressive evidence of this.

The text has been translated from English