The 2024 World Cup Finals Riyadh: on Human Rights, Sportwashing, and a Minor Media Boycott

Fri, 04/12/2024 - 19:15
Saudi Arabia

The FEI World Cup™ Final 2024, which kicks off in Riyadh in a week's time, looks set to be a right royal battle between some ringing names in the sport. The event, taking place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has rubbed with some stakeholders in the sport who feel a dilemma between ethics, duty, and laissez-faire.

Saudi Arabia's reputation in equestrian sport and as a sportwashing country is not particularly thriving. Known as a repeat offender of human rights, the kingdom puts the jar of honey on the table by offering the highest purse ever for a Finals with 400,000 euro to be won in dressage and 2.6 million in show jumping. 

Field of 17

The 2023 champion and longtime world number one athlete, Germany’s Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, is not lining out this time around and that leaves it wide open for the rest of the field of 17 horse-and-rider combinations from 12 countries.

The flags of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Lithuania, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the USA will be flown when the action begins with the Grand Prix on Wednesday 17 April.

No Non-League Rider, Interpretation of the Rules? 

The already small field of 18 riders that are eligible to compete at a World Cup Finals has been reduced to 17 as no non-league rider was found to participate. Last year at the Finals in Omaha the field was even thinner with only 15 combinations moving into the freestyle due to numerous health issues. 

FEI World Cup Rules - non-league riders
For the 2024 World Cup Finals Caroline Chew (SGP) was the highest-ranking Non-League athlete on the FEI Dressage World Ranking List (WDRL).

"(Chew) was initially allocated the non-League starting place for the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Riyadh. However, she declined the invitation," an FEI spokesperson told Eurodressage. They added that the open spot was then offered to "Yessin Rahmouni from Morocco, the athlete unfortunately declined due to injury." A third option was seemingly not sought by the FEI.

"Since the FEI Dressage World Cup Rules Season 2023 – 2024 do not allow for offering the declined place to the next highest-ranked athlete, the empty slot was reallocated in line with Article 15.8 of Chapter VIII, which states: If starting places are still available, these will be allocated to the athlete / horse combinations(s) with the highest ranking (as a combination) on the February of the current year FEI Dressage World Ranking List (WDRL), and who have participated in at least two (2) CDI-W qualifiers."

A non-league starting place not taken becomes an "FEI Extra Starting Place", yet the FEI rules clearly state that "If the FEI extra starting place is not allocated, the place goes to a permanently domiciled non-League athlete (GRs Art. 123) who qualifies in the League where they are domiciled (max one (1) extra starting place)."

Only if that place is not taken will the next rule kicks into action which the FEI quoted to Eurodressage. It makes one wonder if the FEI decided not give the chance to a second non-league rider; even though a qualified combination submit the application on time.

The official FEI document stated that "Too Late to Reallocate the Slot, for Logistic Reasons"

FEI's Choice for Saudi Arabia

The FEI's choice to allocate the 2024 World Cup Finals in Riyadh was a surprising one. The allocation happened five years ago in 2019 after Saudi Arabia applied to host the 2022 World Equestrian Games, but did not win the bid. Instead in November 2019 Riyadh received the 2024 World Cup Finals. It is unclear if Riyadh faced competition from others bidders as an archive list of previous bidders is not published.

List of FEI Warning Cards in endurance. Twelve
of 22 warned riders are from KSA
The reputation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an equestrian nation is below par. KSA has a strong presence in endurance and show jumping, but never has a female rider made it onto the Saudi team for a major championship. In addition in 2020, the FEI disciplined three senior officials for “failing in their duty” after a number of field-of-play violations spotted on the Al Ula livestream but not acted upon. As well as the doping concerns, only 64 of 200 starters completed this year’s race. At the 2023 FEI endurance event in Al Ula 15 of 32 horses sampled test positive to doping/medication. On the FEI Endurance Yellow Warning Cards list of the past twelve months 14 of the 22 warned riders are from Saudi Arabia. In addition, the record FEI doping ban of 7.5 years is currently being served by a Saudi rider.

Eurodressage interviewed the FEI on the matter and a spokesperson stated "over the years, the FEI has observed significant progress in Saudi Arabia in the realm of equestrian sports. Notably, there has been a remarkable advancement towards gender equality, with men and women now competing on equal terms in various equestrian disciplines. The SAEF has played a pivotal role in fostering this inclusivity, actively promoting female participation by hosting national and international equestrian events where women compete alongside their male counterparts."

"Saudi Arabia has successfully hosted numerous FEI events, featuring multiple shows each year across various disciplines, all without any reported incidents from these events."

The FEI further added that, "Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation (SAEF) and its Disciplinary and Ethics Committee have taken decisive actions to address the issues that occurred at the FEI Endurance Event in Al Ula in 2023. To the extent that violations of the FEI Rules and Regulations occurred, these were also dealt with. Strict measures have been implemented, and appropriate sanctions have been applied to those found responsible.  Notably the 2024 edition of the Al Ula event showed a marked improvement."

The allocation of the 2024 World Cup Finals was done in 2019 before Saudi Arabia had improved their doping record. Furthermore the 2026 World Endurance Championships were allocated to Al Ula at the end of 2023 when their mass doping record at that exact event the same year gobsmacked all and tainted endurance sport even more.  Only at the most recent endurance event at At Ula in February 2024 only 2 of 22 horses tested positive. However, the the huge amount of FEI Yellow Warning Cards given to KSA riders in 2024 (no less than 11!) does not look good on their report card.

The FEI sees it differently: "In addition to disciplinary measures, the SAEF has initiated comprehensive education programmes aimed at raising awareness among athletes and their support staff regarding horse welfare matters. These educational initiatives are crucial steps towards fostering a culture of responsible horsemanship and ensuring the well-being of equine athletes in Endurance competitions."

Human Rights

The FEI's choice for the World Cup Finals in Saudi Arabia raises more eyebrows as Human rights in the kingdom are a topic of concern and controversy. Known for its executions of political protesters and opponents, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been accused of and denounced by various international organizations and governments for violating human rights within the country. 

Saudi Arabia abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its call for freedom of religion violated the precepts of Islam, and that the human rights guaranteed by the Islamic-based law of Saudi Arabia surpassed those secured by the Universal Declaration.

KSA Refused to sign the Declaration of Human Rights
A year ago a new Saudi law was codified which enables discrimination against women, including through male guardianship. Only men can be legal guardians and women must have a male guardian’s permission to marry and are then obliged to obey their husband. The government of Saudi Arabia provides no legal protections for LGBT rights. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is illegal within the country. LGBTQ Saudis are forced into exile and any hint at LGBTQ is nipped in the bud. Shops selling rainbow coloured toys face legal penalties.

The ground jury at the 2024 World Cup Finals includes a panel of seven that will asses seventeen dressage riders. Three of that group of 24 are openly gay.

The FEI told Eurodressage, "to the FEI’s knowledge, and based on the official information published by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there are no restrictions on members of the LGBTQ+ community entering Saudi Arabia and visitors are not required to disclose personal information."

The FEI has signed contract with the Saudi show organizer that no access can be denied to FEI accredited people 

"The legally binding Host Agreement between the FEI, the Organiser and the National Federation contains a clause that all the FEI World Cup™ Finals must be accessible to all participants (including but not limited to Athletes, Horses, Support Personnel and Team Officials) that have a right, according to the relevant FEI Rules and Regulations and sport criteria, to participate in the Finals.


Saudi Arabia (and several other Middle eastern countries) have been accused of using "sportwashing" to rehabilitate their image. By heavily investing in sports and hosting major sporting events the Kingdom wants to divert attention from human rights abuse.

Official website for the 2024 World Cup Finals
According to Amnesty International; "migrant workers (in KSA) continued to be abused and exploited under the sponsorship system and thousands were arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions, tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and involuntarily returned to their home country as part of a nationwide crackdown on undocumented migrants."

Saudi Arabia's recent sports-related investments include over $1 billion in the Professional Golf Association (PGA/LIV) Tour and hundreds of millions of dollars to recruit soccer stars to play on Saudi-based teams or be tourism ambassadors. Some argue that KSA's investment into sport  has opened a pathway to health, fitness, and careers unimaginable a decade ago. In 2017, the right to obtain driver’s licenses opened up opportunities for female Saudi athletes. The same year Saudi first licensed gyms for women. 

A look into the FEI database on Saudi female athletes reveals that there are two dressage riders registered with an active FEI passport (neither has ever competed). When it comes to the more popular show jumping discipline the FEI has over 350 female jumping riders with active FEI passports. However, clicking on the first 200 names reveals that only 24 riders have results at CSI (1*) level. All other 176 have never showed in their life. The most prominent female KSA show jumper is the U.S. born and French based Dalma Malhas.


The small, less high profile field of entries at the 2024 World Cup Finals (most riders are saving their top horses for the Paris Olympics) and its location do not make this event the biggest magnet for spectators and media to attend. 

The Horse Magazine boycots the 2024 World Cup Finals
One equestrian publication has announced that it will boycott the Finals: the Australian The Horse Magazine.  Its editor in chief, Chris Hector, wrote: "The sole reason the Saudis have spent billions of dollars buying complicit sports, is to try and improve their reputation on the world stage – forget about the political prisoners, the repression of women and the LBGT community, the murder of a courageous journalist in a Saudi Embassy on the orders of their head of state, even forget about the shameful treatment of animals and the appalling record of drug infringements found in their Endurance races – let’s just sit back in front of the television and enjoy the exciting sport. And revel in all that prizemoney and the hefty fee for the FEI."

Hector concluded, "So if we cover the Finals we are directly assisting the Saudis in their sports-washing exercise. No way. I am sure there will be reams of gormless gush spewing out from the FEI publicity department telling you how wonderful the dressage is (no nasty tongues, or swishing tails or throttled necks), how magnificent the facilities and what a great time was had by all. Yeah, well they can answer to their own conscience, if they can find it."

Eurodresage is not personally attending the 2024 World Cup Finals. We rarely go to a WCF as the expenses for such a trip to see just 18 riders are too great to justify being there. The last Finals we did live on the scene was in Paris in 2018. We will tune in via live stream.

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