Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sport Rivalries in the Gulf: A Clash of Politics and Egos

Specials- Khalifa International Stadium
A general view of the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, after it was refurbished ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo AFP

Qatar is duelling with its Gulf rivals to be the giant of the sports world, spending billions of dollars to sponsor popular clubs and host major tournaments. So far, the tiny emirate has scored the biggest prize. Although now a pariah state in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), due to its alleged support for terrorism, Qatar is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is expected to elevate the country’s global status.

But doing so comes at a price. Not only is Qatar spending $200 billion on infrastructure and services for the tournament, but hundreds of migrant workers on its construction sites are dying each year in the extreme heat, according to Human Rights Watch. The regional blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, which began in June 2017 and shows no sign of coming to an end, is also hindering the country’s ability to import the necessary supplies and materials.

The World Cup is such a big deal that Dubai’s high-profile security chief, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan, declared that the blockade would end if Qatar gave up the event. Khalfan, of course, does not have the final say when it comes to the UAE’s foreign policy. But his words underline the significance that top Gulf figures attach to the event.

Journalist James Dorsey wrote for Fair Observer, a US-based nonprofit media organization, that the UAE will not stop trying to strip Qatar of the World Cup. The UAE has often alluded to past allegations of corruption in Qatar’s bid. Those allegations were eventually dismissed after FIFA published a report by Michael Garcia, FIFA’s former ethics investigator, in full last year.

However, doubts were once again raised when consultants at Cornerstone Global leaked a report to the BBC that assessed the impact of the blockade. According to the BBC, the report states that Western diplomats are unsure if Qatar will host the tournament as planned due to the ongoing political crisis.

Specials- Labour workers in Doha
Labourers cleaning the cooling system at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha after it was refurbished ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo AFP

The founder of Cornerstone Global, Ghanem Nuseibeh, claimed that none of the countries involved in the blockade had financed the report. “The report was done objectively by people who have been to Qatar and spoke to people on the ground there,” he told The Telegraph. “There is no political motivation for that.”

Nevertheless, it is clear that the diplomatic feud is hurting Qatar’s sports industry in other ways. Its state-owned channel beIN, which is one of the biggest sports networks in the world, was blocked for six weeks to subscribers in the UAE following the start of the spat last June. Saudi Arabia also shut down vendors that were selling subscriptions for beIN.

The blockade has threatened Qatar’s position as one of the largest Middle Eastern providers of high-profile sports games. Countries supporting the blockade have also denied entry to beIN production crews, preventing the network from fulfilling its role as a global host ambassador for events such as the Asian Confederation games. During that event, players and coaches from rival nations refused to speak with reporters from the agency.

If this trend continues, beIN could lose thousands of fanatical subscribers. Meanwhile, the UAE is trying to transform itself into a sports haven. A study released in 2015 by Deloitte, a multinational accounting and consulting firm, revealed that 1 million spectators watch sports annually in Dubai alone, more than 30 per cent of the population.

Even more impressive, according to the same study, the city generates about $407 million from the sponsorship deals and tourist revenues attached to the sporting events it hosts. At least $250 million of this amount comes from the seven major sporting events it hosts each year. The Dubai World Cup Carnival – a horseracing event that includes some of the most renowned competitors in the world – is one of the most advertised.

Abu Dhabi also boasts a prominent sports industry since launching a campaign in 2014 aimed at making it a global sports capital. In the past three years, it has invited international teams to use its facilities and hosted global competitions. Forthcoming events include the AFC Asian Cup in 2018 and the Special Olympics in 2019.

Specials- Mohammad Khalfan al-Rumaithi
Mohammad Khalfan al-Rumaithi (L), Deputy Chairman of the Local Higher Organising Committee of the tournament and Chung Mong-gyu, Vice President of the Asian Football Confederation, speaks during the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 Qualifiers Final Round, Abu Dhabi. Photo AFP

To a lesser extent, the tiny kingdom of Bahrain also has a prestigious sports landscape thanks to the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix. Although the event is exceptionally expensive to host – reportedly costing $40 million – the ruling family sees it as an opportunity to promote the country to the world. However, the repressive response to protests since 2011 may have damaged the country’s image beyond repair.

Then again, neither Formula 1, its sponsors nor race car fanatics have been dissuaded from watching and attending the Bahrain Grand Prix in recent years. Bahrain has also teamed up with the UAE in the past to boycott sports competitions held in Qatar. In 2015, the two countries refused to participate in the Handball World Championship, citing a previous diplomatic feud at the time.

Two years later, Bahrain and UAE sport fans had something to celebrate. A cycling squad from both countries qualified and participated in the prestigious 2017 cycling WorldTour series.

A race was held in Bahrain, featuring the Bahrain-Merida team, which Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa hopes to develop into one of the best cycling teams in the world. UAE Team Emirates also has lofty ambitions, after signing up European champion Alexander Kristoff and Italian champion Fabio Aru. Their aim, General Manager Carlo Saronni told Cycling News, is to win a Grand Tour and become one of the best teams by 2020.

The road to sporting dominance has not been as smooth for Saudi Arabia. In late 2017, controversy erupted over the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which was the only bidder for the event. Israeli players were denied a visa, while reigning women’s champion Anna Muzychuk boycotted the competition over the kingdom’s degrading treatment of women.

In a Facebook post, she wrote that she could not compromise her principles for the chance to win lots of money. The scandal may even force FIDE, the world chess body, to annul the three-year contract it signed with Saudi  Arabia. Qatari competitors also dropped out after they were reportedly told that they could not display their country’s flag at the event.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are committed to isolating the tiny emirate in every way imaginable. But Dorsey believes that efforts to undermine Qatar’s sports industry could backfire. Assuming the World Cup does go ahead in Qatar in 2022, millions of football fans from the Arab world could be prohibited by their own governments from attending. If that happens, then Qataris will have the last laugh.

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