Football World Cup: Amnesty International criticises Saudi sponsorship of women's tournament in NZ, Australia

Amnesty International has hit out at a proposed Saudi sponsorship of this year's Women's Football World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.

The Athletic reports Visit Saudi - the kingdom's tourism board - will be announced as an official partner of the July/August tournament, eight months after it signed Argentine superstar Lionel Messi as a global ambassador. 

Saudi Arabia's poor civil rights record, particularly towards women, has been widely criticised, as have attempts to deflect that backlash through major sporting sponsorships, including Messi's signing, the rebel LIV Golf Tour and the purchase of Newcastle United in the English Premier League.  

Their potential involvement in a women's football tournament has raised eyebrows around the world.

"The rolling crackdown on human rights under Mohammed bin Salman has seen brave women's rights defenders like Loujain al-Hathloul jailed, tortured and then banned from speaking publicly or leaving the country," Amnesty International UK head of priority campaigns and individuals at risk Felix Jakens told SportsPro.

"Women in Saudi Arabia face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody rights, while Saudi women who've dared to speak out about the need for reforms in the country have received massive jail sentences.

"This latest reported effort to 'sportswash' the country's appalling human rights record is both breathtaking and yet entirely predictable."

Saudi Arabia has recently shown some progress on the women's football stage, fielding its first national team last year and hosting a four-team women's tournament, which it won, last month. FIFA has also appointed the nation's first female international referee.

Even these concessions can be interpreted as efforts to win favour with the international governming body, amid rumours that Saudi Arabia really has its eye on hosting the 2030 Men's World Cup.

FIFA came under attack for awarding last year's tournament to Qatar, another Middle Eastern nation with a poor civil rights record.

"Saudi Arabia's deep pockets mean that sponsorship partnerships like this are probably going to become more common," said Jakens. "Without human rights reforms to match the sport and entertainment packages, Saudi Arabia will rightly be accused of pursuing a cynical sportswashing agenda.

"FIFA should speak out about the need for human rights reform in Saudi Arabia and not merely allow its premier women's tournament to be used for sportswashing, while players, coaches and fans should likewise challenge this crude exploitation of their sport by Saudi Arabia."

The Women's World Cup kicks off on July 20, with the Football Ferns facing Norway at Auckland's Eden Park.