Representational Image | AFP
Manama: Saudi Arabia was confirmed as host of football's 2027 Asian Cup on Wednesday, an expected prelude for a World Cup bid as the oil-rich kingdom spends big on sports in an attempt to improve its image.
The three-time winners' successful bid, a formality after their sole rivals India withdrew, was rubber-stamped at the Asian Football Confederation Congress in Bahrain, held just weeks after Gulf neighbours Qatar hosted the first World Cup in the Middle East.
"We are excited to deliver the greatest tournament in the competition's history," the kingdom's sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal said after the announcement.
"The kingdom is transforming before our eyes and we are filled with excitement for what it will look like in 2027."
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, has held talks with Egypt and Greece about a joint World Cup bid for 2030, officials said last year.
The conservative country has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at deals including Al Nassr's signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, Formula One in Jeddah and the lucrative LIV tour that has divided golf.
The Gulf monarchy is often accused of "sportswashing" - using sport to shield criticism of its human rights record. On Wednesday, a report by Reprieve and the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights said executions had soared under the current leadership.
Speaking to AFP at the AFC Congress, Prince Abdulaziz stressed that there was no World Cup bid on the table, but added: "Everything is possible."
"As you can see, hosting events in Saudi Arabia is big. And it's part of our 2030 vision," he said, referring to the Vision 2030 development project to modernise the oil-dependent economy.
"Anything that will come our way that we see feasible for the vision and the strategy that we have we'll definitely try to pursue."
He added: "Now we are focusing on 2027 because we still have to build infrastructure and so on to meet the requirements of the Asian Cup. And hopefully after that we'll see what comes up."
The Asian Cup adds to Saudi Arabia's growing portfolio of major events including the 2034 Asian Games and even the 2029 Asian Winter Games on artificial snow. Saudi is also bidding to host the 2026 Women's Asian Cup.
"I'm sure Saudi Arabia will host a fantastic Asian Cup," FIFA president Gianni Infantino said at the Manama congress.
No dates were announced for the 2023 edition of the Asian Cup, which will be hosted by reigning champions Qatar after China withdrew because of the Covid crisis.
But AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who was elected unopposed to a fresh four-year term, told reporters it seemed likely to happen in January 2024.