The GCC, a noisy sporting neighborhood

Abdullah Alaskari discusses sports investment across the GCC.

Why are Gulf States increasingly investing in Sports? International Football Sport Clubs have long been a vehicle for states and governments to achieve diplomatic and strategic goals.

Whether it’s for propaganda, prestige, foreign relations, or international recognition, sports have played a pivotal role in shaping national image on the global stage. Gulf states, with their oil-rich economies, have turned their attention to the world of sports in recent years.

This article explores why Gulf nations are increasingly investing in sports, particularly in international top-tier football clubs, and how such investments benefit these nations.

The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman, have a rich history of engagement with sports. Many of their football associations were established alongside the founding of these nations. However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that these countries began to institutionalize their interest in sports, aligning it with their modernization projects. This shift was reflected in their national “vision” policies, which aimed to promote infrastructure investments, diversified industries, business-friendly environments, and improved productivity.

One of the primary ways Gulf states invest in international sports is by sponsoring or investing in foreign clubs. These investments offer a dual benefit: they provide access to the lucrative sports industry while enhancing the country’s global visibility. The UAE was the first Gulf state to invest in a foreign club when the Abu Dhabi United Group purchased Manchester City in 2008. This move set the stage for subsequent investments, including the Royal Emirates Group’s GBP90 million investment in Getafe CF and Fly Emirates’ USD336 million sponsorship deal with Real Madrid. In Saudi Arabia, businessman Ali al-Faraj took a 90% stake in Portsmouth Football Club in 2009, marking Saudi Arabia’s entry into the international football arena. Meanwhile, Qatar made a high-profile acquisition by purchasing Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, leading to the recruitment of world-class players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar da Silva Santos Jr, and Kylian Mbappé.

Gulf countries have also ventured into hosting major international sporting events. Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup brought significant global attention to the region. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, in partnership with Egypt and Greece, submitted a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup, underscoring the growing role of Gulf nations in hosting global sports events.

Qatar, in particular, has stood out for its rapid rise as a host for major sporting events. Since 2005, Qatar has hosted around 500 international sporting events, a remarkable achievement that highlights the country’s commitment to becoming a global sports hub. The UAE has also played its part, hosting the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship and the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup in Dubai. Additionally, Abu Dhabi secured a deal to host UFC events for five years, further cementing its status as a global sports destination.

These hosting endeavors extend beyond football to include other elite spectator sports such as golf, cycling, horse racing, and sailing. These events cater to affluent audiences and contribute to the diversification of the Gulf states’ tourism and entertainment sectors. Bahrain’s hosting of the Formula One World Championship in 2004, for example, marked the first time a Middle Eastern country hosted the prestigious tournament.

In addition to international sports investments, Gulf states have made significant efforts to bolster their national sports sectors. These initiatives include the construction of state-of-the-art sports infrastructure, attracting renowned international players and coaches to local teams, securing broadcasting rights for games, and competing in regional and international tournaments.

Notably, Gulf states have placed emphasis on indigenous and traditional sports, such as camel racing and falconry, which have garnered international attention through state-sponsored efforts.

Furthermore, there has been a concerted focus on developing youth and women’s participation in sports. Qatar’s Aspire Academy stands as a testament to this commitment, training young, talented people in various sports and providing sports-related healthcare at the Aspetar hospital. These investments have paid off, with national teams achieving success on the international stage. For example, Saudi Arabia’s national football team’s victory over Argentina during a 2022 World Cup match sparked national pride, prompting King Salman to declare a public holiday in celebration. Similarly, Qatar has enjoyed victories in multiple tournaments, including the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and earning five medals in the Olympics over its history.

Gulf states have also leveraged sports broadcasting as a means of projecting soft power on the international stage. Qatar’s BeIN network, for instance, has secured exclusive sports broadcasting contracts across the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of the world. This includes screening major international championships such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. These broadcasting arrangements allow Gulf states to extend their influence even when they face criticism on other fronts.

On the other hand, Kuwait has fallen silent in a noisy sporting neighborhood.

Kuwait made its first World Cup appearance in 1982 when the tournament was hosted in Spain.

Fast forward more than four decades and there is little sign of such unity. Kuwait, has failed to even qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup, and has slipped down the rankings and out of the spotlight at a time when there has never been such a focus on sports in the region.  The general consensus about Kuwait is that there is a cautiousness and conservative approach to decision-making due to the Iraqi invasion in the early 1990s.

Kuwait has become more inward-looking. The country has stepped back from the spotlight and is less conspicuous. Kuwait’s relatively powerful parliament, which the government has to negotiate and deal with, can make it more difficult for major projects to get the green light, especially compared to governments in Riyadh, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. The rulers of such countries have no restrictions whatsoever on what and where to spend and how much.

Kuwait’s silence in the noisy sporting neighborhood of the Middle East can be attributed to a combination of historical, political, and developmental factors. Kuwait has experienced periods of political instability, including disputes within its sports governing bodies. These disputes have resulted in the suspension of Kuwait’s Olympic Committee and have hindered the country’s ability to participate in international sporting events. Political instability can disrupt sports development and participation.

To regain its footing in the sports world and compete more effectively with its neighbors, Kuwait would likely need to address these factors by investing in sports infrastructure and by developing and promoting sports from a young age, as well as emphasizing physical education in schools in a grassroots program.

Kuwait may not have invested as heavily in fostering a sports culture, but it needs to look into resolving political disputes, fostering a strong sports culture, and actively participating in international sporting events. It’s important to note that reversing a decline in sports performance can be a long-term process that requires sustained effort and commitment.

In conclusion, Gulf states’ increasing investments in sports, especially international top-tier football clubs, serve multiple purposes. These investments diversify their economies, enhance their global visibility, and position them as hosts for major international sporting events.

Additionally, they strengthen national sports infrastructure, fostering talent development and international success. By leveraging sports broadcasting, Gulf states can project soft power and improve their international image, even in the face of other challenges. As they continue to invest in the world of sports, these nations are making their mark on the global stage in ways that extend beyond the realm of hydrocarbon economics.

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