Brave New World

The Club World Cup was a stage for Saudi Arabia to showcase itself and its visions in the world of football, with legends of the game and Saudi royalty basking in the glory. Away from the spotlight, migrant workers live in slum conditions.

By Sam Kunti

At the end of December , with fireworks lighting up the Jeddah night sky over the King Abdullah Stadium and to the tunes of French DJ David Guetta, Manchester City, an Abu Dhabi-owned club, won a maiden Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia. Even if they didn’t play, Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne received huge cheers from the fans. Much of the 10-day tournament had been carefully stage-managed – Saudi officials shook hands with female match officials, spoke to selected media, and the host nation regaled Fifa and football officials with lavish dinners and trips to tourist attractions.

At Jeddah Airport, advertisements for Al-Ittihad’s fan zone and Soundstorm, a music festival, greeted football supporters as well as pilgrims on their way to Mecca. All over the city, billboards advertised the 2023 Club World Cup. Downtown, in Al Balad, the old city centre, a maze of narrow streets with old houses, fans of Fluminense, Al Ahly, and even Urawa Reds congregated.

This was the face Saudi Arabia and local organisers wanted the world to see – a face of transformation, a city and a country on their way to modernity. Saudi Arabia discarded some of its strictest social mores with recent reforms. Saudi women have entered the workforce – from customs officers to Uber drivers – and the young can dance at music festivals to the beats of Armin van Buuren.

In the capital, the Riyadh Season, a months-long entertainment festival, featuring Soundstorm, was in full swing.

Much of Jeddah, a sprawling city of five million with high-end shop...

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