Briefing: Saudi Arabia, FIFA and climate breakdown

By Ali Hines, Frank Huisingh and Vitas Carosella

With the news that Saudi Aramco will become FIFA’s latest sponsor, the recent announcement that the desert kingdom will host the 2034 World Cup and FIFA president Infantino attending COP climate negotiations in Dubai [1], it’s a good time to set out Saudi’s disastrous climate record and why its sponsorship and hosting of the World Cup matter [2].

A petrostate prioritising profit over planet

Saudi Arabia is governed by one of the most repressive regimes in the world and its awful human rights record has been widely reported. This alone should disqualify it from hosting a global tournament like the FIFA World Cup. However, the analysis of Saudi Arabia’s take-over of the sporting world should also factor in the nation’s climate record.

Saudi Arabia, through its state-owned oil and gas company Saudi Aramco, is determined to keep pumping and selling oil for as long as possible. 

Freddie Daley from environmental campaign group Badvertising said to the BBC

“Saudi Arabia’s push into sport is a concerted, targeted and strategically astute effort for the country to bolster its standing on the world stage and leverage the soft power of sport”.  Saudi Arabia’s “massive presence within sport” allows it to continue “promoting and normalising high-carbon products to billions of fans”. 

The probable sponsorship deal between FIFA and Saudi Aramco means that the world’s most popular sport will sell its popularity and influence to the world’s biggest polluter. This is in clear violation of FIFA’s own commitments, as explained below.

Although current efforts to tackle the climate crisis are insufficient, climate action is beginning to have a serious impact on oil demand, especially through the expansion of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

More and more citizens know we can live better, healthier and more prosperous lives on a liveable planet if we ditch fossil fuels rapidly. Petrol states and oil and gas corporations do everything they can to slow this development, partly through reputation laundering. Saudi Arabia spends huge amounts to improve and protect their reputation with the help of elite PR-agencies. Associating themselves with the most popular sports in the world is one effective way for big polluters to protect their reputation

At the same time Saudi Arabia is teaming up FIFA  – the organisation responsible for securing football’s future – Saudi Arabia and Saudi Aramco are working hard to destroy the only planet we can play football on. Below we explain Saudi Arabia’s disastrous pollution record and the reasons FIFA and football associations should care. 

  1. Saudi Arabia keeps on drilling and block climate action

Drill, drill, drill

Saudi Arabia continues to drill for oil and has no plans to stop. It has committed to a weak net zero target by 2060 and says it wants to power 50% of its national grid with clean energy by 2030, yet has (according to Climate Action Tracker) made virtually zero investments of note to reach those targets. Saudi Aramco is the second largest oil producer globally. While no current fossil fuel company has a climate target that is good enough to keep the world from heating up dangerously, state-owned Saudi Aramco is the worst of all. Researchers argue that, to fairly pay for future damages caused by Saudi Aramco’s emissions from the last 25 years only, Saudi Aramco should contribute  43 billion USD annually. Other researchers, only looking at past damages between 1985 and 2018, argue that Saudi Aramco would be responsible for 8.4 trillion USD in damages, whereas their financial gain over that period was 5.4 trillion USD. No fossil fuel company made more money or caused more damage over that period than Saudi Aramco.

A recent report from the Centre for Climate Reporting exposed a vast Saudi government program designed to counteract the world’s efforts to adopt renewables and reduce demand for fossil fuels and tackle climate change – its plan to get developing countries hooked on oil. Saudi Arabia, through Saudi Aramco, will surely use the sponsorship of FIFA and national sponsor deals to support this program.

Block, block, block

Saudi Arabia tries to undermine global efforts for climate action, in order to keep the world addicted to fossil fuels for as long as possible. Saudi Arabia is far from the only state not doing what is necessary, but it is by some way (along with Russia) one of the most egregious blockers of climate action. This is a country which researchers find has always tried to slow, obstruct and block global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, even as global temperatures inexorably rise. Days before the COP26 conference in Glasgow in 2021, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia was one among a handful of nations lobbying the IPCC to remove recommendations that the world needs to phase out fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia had also lobbied for this the year before. 45 percent of Saudi Arabia’s delegates to the COP26 conference were current or former Aramco employees. To quote Reuters: in August 2023, “U.N. experts sent a letter of concern to Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco, saying its expansion of fossil fuel production and ongoing exploration threaten human rights”. 

In UN talks for a plastic treaty in November 2023 – a global attempt to create a first-ever treaty to contain plastic pollution – Saudi Arabia pushed for the continuation of its use despite much of the world being awash with plastics. Oil-based plastics are the Plan B for the fossil fuel industry and are set to drive nearly half of oil demand growth by mid-century. 

Client Earth’s ‘Greenwashing Files’ offer a useful insight into a country that says it’s shifting on climate yet doing very little. Saudi Arabia is the one of the homes of fossil fuel production and is a nation determined to keep pumping and selling until the last drop. 

  1. Saudi Arabia’s climate: extreme heat and great thirst

Known for its extreme heat and water scarcity, Saudi Arabia is already witnessing rapid alterations in its climate patterns due to climate breakdown. Hosting a tournament of such magnitude, with 48 teams and millions of spectators raises questions about the health implications for players and fans. According to the World Bank’s Climate Change Knowledge Portal, the desert kingdom has summer temperatures that can reach as high as 43℃ (109℉), but average annual rainfall is below 150mm (5.9 in) in most of the country. Extreme heat and water scarcity are only expected to increase as climate change worsens.

As the climate continues to worsen – we are currently on track to break 1.5℃ by 2029 – the risk for players and fans rises. 

In all likelihood, this tournament will need to be moved to the winter – interrupting the domestic club season – in order to avoid the highest temperatures. Moreover, stadiums will need to be air conditioned, games will need to be played late in the evenings and hydration will be a key concern. 

Saudi Arabia’s Great Thirst

Although everyone knows this country in the desert owes its existence to the discovery of oil, the importance of water is just as significant. Saudi Arabia is classified as one of the most water-scarce nations on the planet. The absolute water scarcity level is 500 cubic meters per capita, per year. Saudi Arabia has only 89.5 cubic meters per capita, per year. Despite high levels of water access in the country, severe overconsumption and lack of reliable renewable water sources have tipped the country towards crisis point. 

Saudi Arabia consumes double the world average of water per person, 263 litres per capita each day and rising, amid a changing climate that will strain water reserves. These levels indicate that the country is using on average more than four times the water than is naturally replenished. 

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation was sounding the alarm about the rapid depletion of Saudi Arabia’s groundwater resources as far back as 2008. Pointing out that most water withdrawn comes from fossil deep aquifers, the agency signposted to predictions which suggest that these resources may not last more than about 25 years.

As such, Saudi Arabia is the largest country to rely heavily on desalination, operating 31 plants in total. Powering the world’s greatest concentration of desalination plants requires a significant amount of energy. Saudi Arabia makes up a fifth of the world’s output of desalinated water, with its desalination plants reportedly burning through 300,000 barrels of crude oil a day – pumping pollutants into the air and endangering marine ecosystems with their run-off.

There is no guarantee that the water supply will be plentiful enough to host not only 47 visiting teams but millions of travelling spectators. This could mean irreparable damage to aquifers, overreliance on desalination, lack of available potable water for traveling fans, dangers of dehydration, and of course the need to import (bottled) water from other locations around the world just to host a football tournament.

  1. An extremely polluting tournament

Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the World Cup in 2034 will cause a huge amount of emissions. FIFA requires fourteen suitable stadiums to be put forward in a World Cup host bid, and up until now it demanded that seven of the stadiums already exist. FIFA reduced that number to four just before announcing it was open to 2034 candidates, bending the rules for the Saudis. Constructing ten stadiums will lead to enormous carbon emissions, as was the case for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, about which the World Cup organisers misled the public

Just like in 2026 and 2030, the 48-team tournament will mean a lot of extra emissions from travelling teams, fans and others, both to Saudi Arabia as well as within the country between host cities. A smaller World Cup reduces climate impacts significantly. 

In a country that rarely sees rain, the habit of draining groundwater, which the construction of vast infrastructure does, could prove perilous. Oil may have built the modern Saudi state, but a lack of water threatens its people.

  1. What about FIFA’s responsibility?

By 2030, the world will need to have reduced emissions by about50% compared to current levels in order to maintain the possibility of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees celsius and maintain a liveable planet. 

FIFA committed to this target under the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. However, by hosting bigger tournaments, that lead to more emissions, it’s breaking its UN commitments.

Another commitment under this Framework, principle 4, requires signatories to “promote sustainable and responsible consumption.” Signing a deal with Aramco (as well as renewing its deal with Qatar Airways) is a clear violation of this principle. FIFA should no longer allow its influential platform to be used by big polluters, be they fossil fuel states, fossil fuel companies or extremely polluting activities like air travel. The climate crisis is the biggest health crisis the planet faces, affecting players and fans around the world. Just like with tobacco, we should not advertise what harms us. No longer allowing ads for fossil fuel companies, airlines, polluting cars and cruises will lower the demand for these polluting products. 

FIFA continues to show a lack of responsibility for the future of the game, its players and fans and is taking  the game in the wrong direction. We urge FIFA to stand on the side of football fans and players around the world, not with big polluters. 

FIFA should break ties to big polluters and take serious climate action to reduce emissions. That means a reorganised global football calendar, and an environmentally responsible World Cup with fewer teams, little new construction and reduced travel emissions. The biggest football festival in the world should help humanity save itself from climate breakdown, not champion its destruction.


  1. Of course, the United Arab Emirates vice president owns one of the world’s best teams, Manchester City. Their national oil company, ADNOC, has the largest net-zero-busting expansion plan of any company in the world.
  2. Vitas Carosella also addresses this issue here: Saudi Arabia Hosting The 2034 World Cup Shows Sustainability Is Not A Priority For FIFA