By Ben Church, CNN
(CNN) — Barcelona has warned fans to be “prudent and discrete” when traveling to Saudi Arabia for the team’s Spanish Super Cup semifinal against Osasuna on Thursday, urging spectators to “strictly respect the country’s customs and ways.”
The advice, released on the Barça website Monday, also warned that people could face “severe penalties” for openly supporting the LGBTQ community.
“People are advised to be respectful and prudent when it comes to public demonstrations of affection,” the Barça statement read, adding that the club was operating under instruction of the Spanish Embassy in Riyadh.
“Indecent behaviour, including any action of a sexual nature, can lead to severe legal consequences for foreigners.
“Same-sex relations can also be subjected to severe penalties, as well as open displays of support for LGBTI causes, even on social media.”
The statement has been questioned by Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who said the advice only highlights the issues that come with holding sporting events in the Gulf state.
“This briefing serves as a reminder that there is currently no human rights framework for fans, players, journalists or anyone else travelling to Saudi Arabia for a sporting event,” Worden said in a statement, per The Guardian and confirmed to CNN.
“This is the main problem and what is required is due diligence to establish the risks people might face.”
She added: “I see a gap in information for women fans. Perhaps it’s assuming they don’t exist or that they have the same needs as male fans, which is just incorrect.
“The Saudi guardianship system presents risks to women which are not at all considered. Equally there is no mention as to the risks in terms of information security.”
Why Saudi Arabia is hosting
The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) struck a deal with Saudi Arabia in 2019 to host the Super Cup until 2029 – a deal that will earn the governing body $34 million a year, according to Reuters.
It comes amid the Gulf state’s spending spree as it bids to become a sporting powerhouse. That is despite Saudi Arabia regularly receiving criticism for its treatment of LGBTQ people, women and migrant workers, as well as its human rights record.
Last year, human rights group Amnesty International told CNN that it had documented a rollback in human rights in the country, including an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression and an increased use of counterterrorism and cybercrime laws to silence dissent. Between 2022 and 2023, the organization said it had documented an increase in criminal prosecutions compared to previous years.
In 2022, Amnesty reported the highest number of annual executions in the country in 30 years, with 196 people killed.
In response to criticism about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the kingdom’s sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal said: “People that don’t know Saudi Arabia, have never been to Saudi Arabia, go out and talk about it as if they’ve lived there for 30 years, 40 years. So I always tell people, come to Saudi. Come and see Saudi.
“We acknowledge that and these events help us reform to a better future for everyone,” he told BBC Sport.
CNN Sport has reached out to the Saudi Ministry Of Sport for comment on Barcelona’s statement but did not immediately get a response.
Barcelona is the defending Spanish Super Cup champion having beaten Real Madrid in the final in Riyadh last year. The winner between the Blaugrana and Osasuna on Thursday will face Real Madrid in Sunday’s final after Los Blancos beat Atlético Madrid 5-3 on Wednesday.
Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos was booed every time he touched the ball during Wednesday’s match, widely reported to be an apparent response from Saudi fans to comments made by the World Cup winner about the country’s human rights record and weak domestic league.
Kroos told Sports Illustrated in August 2023 that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is “the one thing that would stop me from such a move” – referring to his refusal to move to the country’s Saudi Pro League (SPL) in the future – and added that players moving to the SPL is “a decision for money and against football.”
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CNN’s Matias Grez and Sammy Mncwabe contributed reporting.