WTA and Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia


On April 4 2024, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) finalized an agreement with the Saudi Tennis Federation, announcing Riyadh as the host city for its next three finals in 2024, 2025, and 2026. The agreement was driven by WTA’s ambition to significantly increase prize money for female players, culminating in a record prize money of 15.25 million for the WTA Finals in 2024, with further increases predicted for 2025 and 2026. However, amidst the anticipation surrounding this collaboration, pivotal concerns emerge.

First, the agreement underscores Saudi Arabia’s persistent utilization of ‘sportswashing’ tactics to divert global attention from its persistent human rights violations. For the past few years, Saudi Arabia has strategically invested $6bn on ‘sportswashing’ across various sporting domains, including football, Formula 1, golf, and now, tennis. The partnership with the WTA serves as yet another instance of the Saudi government’s foray into sportswashing, this time with a pronounced concern for women’s rights.

Saudi Arabia’s track record on women’s rights remains deeply concerning, not only in meeting basic international human rights standards but also in the context of sports and physical education. Under Saudi law, particularly Sharia law, women and men are not treated as equals as women are subject to the male guardianship system, effectively rendering them as possessions of men. This system dictates various aspects of women’s lives, including their options for travelling, where to live, and the frequency of sexual relations, with disobedience carrying severe consequences. Women who actively protest this injustice risk indefinite imprisonment, torture, and travel bans as seen in the case of Loujain al-Hathloul – a Saudi women’s rights activist who continues to face a travel ban after she was detained for more than 1,000 days for her women’s rights activism.

In addition, despite legislative reforms, such as the recent right for Saudi women to attend certain sporting events, substantial barriers to Saudi women’s participation in sports persist. The availability of venues where women can engage or spectate sports remains severely restricted, with the absence of state-organized sporting events accessible to women. As a result, women’s engagement in sports predominantly occurs within private settings, which could potentially bar them from attending the WTA Finals events altogether.

The second issue lies in the perplexing decision-making process of the WTA, whose core values have long revolved around empowering women through sports. How could the WTA, an organization ostensibly committed to gender equality, strike a deal with a host nation that fundamentally disregards the notion of gender parity? While the partnership promises increased prize money for female athletes, rectifying a historical imbalance in earnings relative to male counterparts, it tacitly endorses a nation where women’s rights are severely curtailed. In addition, through this partnership, the WTA has shifted the responsibility to advocate for women’s rights

onto individual tennis players, forcing them to choose between silence in the midst of oppression or risk severe sanctions by the authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia. Put more simply, if the players complain, they risk being jailed and tortured.

Through this partnership, the WTA is not upholding human rights principles outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which necessitates the adoption of policies and assessments to detect any potential risks of human rights violations. Moving forward, the WTA must take decisive steps to address these concerns. This includes actively engaging professional female players in a healthy debate within decision-making processes ensuring that such an agreement, which ultimately puts players at risk, is made within the players’ control. In addition, the WTA should use its platform and global reach to actively push the Saudi government to release imprisoned rights activists and urge reforms to grant women the freedom to exercise their fundamental human rights. It is only through these steps that the WTA can avoid implicitly endorsing the perpetuation of women’s rights violations and neglecting the voice of players in crucial decision-making processes.