British Esports has finalised a "historic" agreement with the Saudi Esports Federation in Riyadh ©British Esports

British Esports has struck a controversial partnership with the Saudi Esports Federation, facing a social media backlash for what it branded as a "historic agreement".

The agreement includes home and away matches between British and Saudi's top athletes at the National Esports Performance Campus in Sunderland and Gamers8 Festival in Saudi Arabia next year.

It was finalised during the United Kingdom Government Department for Business and Trade during its first Esports Trade Mission to Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh.

UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Neil Crompton hosted the launch of the partnership attended by British Esports chief executive Chester King and Saudi Esports Federation President Prince Faisal Bin Bandar bin Sultan.

The two National Federations have agreed to develop the gaming industry in Saudi Arabia, foster connections and explore opportunities.

Cultural exchange programmes, internships, mentorship, esports training programmes, educational initiatives and collaborative research projects are all planned.

King, also a vice-president of the Global Esports Federation (GEF), claimed the agreement would create a "new era for esports in the UK".

"We are excited about this collaboration, which is poised to usher in a new era for esports in the UK," he said.

"As two of the world’s leading esports federations, our joint efforts will undoubtedly shape the future of the industry, providing incredible opportunities for esports athletes, professionals and enthusiasts alike."

However, the announcement of the news on brought significant criticism given Saudi Arabia's human rights record, some highlighting British Esports' support for the Pride movement and "lasting change" for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) community in July.

Homosexuality and same-sex marriage are both outlawed according to Saudi Arabia's uncodified Islamic law, and its record on women's rights continues to be heavily criticised.

Free speech is also heavily restricted in Saudi Arabia, and the country has led a coalition which has carried out deadly airstrikes across Yemen since 2015.

The authoritarian Mohammed bin Salman regime has faced vociferous accusations of attempting to "sportswash" its human rights record, but the Crown Prince last month said he doesn't care about any claims and "if sportswashing is going to increase my gross domestic product by one per cent, then we'll continue sportswashing".

Following the criticism, British Esports insisted it "has not received any monetary contributions of any kind" from the partnership", and it wants to "showcase the best practices that British Esports actively promote in the UK".

"We also want to reaffirm our belief that every individual, regardless of their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, should be able to participate and thrive in the esports industry and this has not changed and will not change," British Esports added.

"We recognise that truly embracing diversity and inclusivity means being ready to tackle challenges head-on and part of that commitment is a willingness to engage in dialogue that positively shapes and influences change.

"We want to represent all identities and backgrounds and we can’t do this alone. 

"British Esports being part of the discussion enables a line of communication for all parties to share their values, learn and develop together."

Prince Faisal Bin Bandar bin Sultan, who recently became IESF Acting President alongside his GEF vice-presidential role, claimed the agreement
Prince Faisal Bin Bandar bin Sultan, who recently became IESF Acting President alongside his GEF vice-presidential role, claimed the agreement "paves the way for a thriving esports industry in both nations" ©Getty Images

Despite heavy scrutiny over the treatment of its citizens, Saudi Arabia has been able to carve out a significant influence in esports, with this year's Global Esports Games due to be held in Riyadh.

Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud took over as Acting President of the International Esports Federation earlier this month.

He is also vice-president of the GEF, and the move could lead to stronger ties between the rival governing bodies.

Prince Faisal heralded the signing of the agreement with British Esports.

"Saudi Esports Federation is constantly evolving and creating new pathways for players to gain new experience, and our cooperation with the British Esports Federation will play a key role in fostering talents and unite the esports community," he said.

"By joining forces, I’m sure that we can create a platform that empowers players, cultivates innovation, and paves the way for a thriving esports industry in both nations and beyond."