Why has the Gulf region become an international sports hub?

  • With four F1 Grand Prix races and the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Gulf has become a go-to destination for international sporting events.
  • The region’s leaders are pursuing a similar strategy of using sports as a soft power tool to boost their national brands while diversifying economically.
  • However, they have also faced backlash from global audiences, with controversy around the “sportswashing” of poor human rights records.
The Gulf, sports, MBS
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman attends F1 Grand Prix in Jeddah (Source: MEMO)

By now, anyone who follows sports news has gotten used to Middle Eastern names regularly making headlines. Whether these may be the names of individuals buying top football clubs in your national league, companies sponsoring your favourite team, or cities hosting the season’s most exciting events, the trend is clear. The world of international sports and the Arab states of the Gulf—particularly Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—have become inseparable. However, even by such standards, this year brings unprecedented attention to the region, with four* Formula 1 Grand Prix races and the first FIFA World Cup to be held in the Middle East.

How did we get here?

In light of the current buzz around the first two races of the 2022 F1 season, held in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, let’s begin by exploring the history of Formula 1 in the Gulf. Individual involvement can be traced back to the 1980s, and to Saudi-born entrepreneur and TAG Group CEO Mansour Ojjeh — a visionary who forever linked the TAG Heuer brand to motorsport and made McLaren into the F1 powerhouse it is today. However, engagement at the national level came in 2004, with the inauguration of the Bahrain International Circuit. As the first-ever track to be built in the desert and host an F1 race in the Middle East, BIC made history.

Now, it is one of many. In 2009, the Abu Dhabi GP entered the F1 calendar, and 2021 brought two more new races to the Gulf, in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and Qatar. This mushrooming of Grand Prix events have been accompanied by a series of long-term sponsorship deals. In 2020, Aramco became the sixth Formula 1 Global Partner, joining a lineup that included the Emirates since 2013. Just last month, the Saudi energy giant also signed a deal with the Aston Martin team. 

Moving on to football, a similar timeline can be traced. The sport’s popularity in the Gulf is a result of globalisation in the region. The 1930s saw the arrival of the first international oil companies, and thus the import of Western culture. For Qatar, the development of local football took place circa the 1950s, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE caught up about a decade later. However, the type of involvement that we are interested in—major investment in the sport at an international level—only began after the turn of the century.

In 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City and in 2011, the English club’s stadium was renamed ‘Etihad’ after signing a sponsorship agreement with the Emirati airline. This was not just a catalyst for the team’s ensuing success, which skyrocketed with the new owners’ generous investments, but also set the tone for a similar approach by other wealthy Gulf states. Most notably, Qatar Sports Investments (a subsidiary of the state’s sovereign wealth fund) took over Paris Saint-Germain in 2011. Moreover, in late 2021, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, led by its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), purchased Newcastle United

Yet, the pinnacle of sports–branding–investment–diplomacy confluence remains to be seen with Qatar’s upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup, scheduled from November 21 to December 18 (perfectly aligned for the final to take place on Qatar National Day). This monumental and highly-marketable event has been driving the country’s national brand building and diversified economic growth since its announcement in 2010 — a complete turning point that gave Qatar and its Emir a first taste of fame on the world stage. 

What are the Gulf leaders’ intentions?

In a prophetic statement, Mansour Ojjeh said during the first Bahrain Grand Prix in 2004: “I think it’s going to give a good image to a lot of people who don’t know or understand this part of the world. (…) This is the 21st century.” Indeed, the last two decades’ developments tell us that the desire to acquire influence by way of image and reputation—what we call soft power in international relations—is the key reason for Gulf leaders’ focus on sports diplomacy, their hosting of mega sports events and their investments abroad.

For the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, this fits into a larger exercise of carving a significant place on the world map for his wealthy microstate. Since his accession to the throne in 2013, the leader’s efforts to consolidate influence at a regional and global level have translated into a campaign of soft power building and public diplomacy. The strategy includes portraying the Emir and Qatar itself as a middle point between the Middle East and the West; as an ally in the region with unique financial resources but shared values. Hosting the World Cup is clearly connected to this, as football strengthens Qatar’s association with Western culture, and international sporting events carry a unifying power that usually transcends political differences.

As for MBS, a similar case could be made that he is pursuing public diplomacy and positive nation branding through sports. However, another important dimension is that of economic diversification, as the urgency of moving away from oil is reflected by the country’s Vision 2030 model and the fierce competition for FDI in the region. In this context, international sporting events make a lot of sense, as they drive long-term investment, tourism, and industrial development. Saudi Aramco’s Formula 1 sponsorship, which is focused on sustainability and the development of “future fuels,” interestingly hits both diplomatic and economic targets.

What issues have emerged?

While intended to raise the profile of Gulf states and their leaders, international sporting events have often backfired by bringing about harsh criticism for the poor human rights records that surround them. Currently, the greatest controversies are on the subject of “sportswashing”, a term pushed by human rights groups referring to the practice of investing in or hosting sports to overshadow abuses. It has become synonymous with the Gulf leaders’ common modus operandi of building or fixing their reputation through positive association.

MBS has recently been bearing the brunt of this backlash, directed towards his brutal repression of dissidents, the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the state of women’s rights, and his bloody campaign in Yemen. This last issue, which is cyclically forgotten by the international community, has been brought to light in a unique way by last weekend’s F1 race in Jeddah, as Houthi missiles hit an Aramco oil facility located 11 km from the circuit. By raising grave security concerns around the Saudi Arabian GP, this comes as an embarrassing incident for MBS. While he might not care about breaking international law in his war against the Houthis, he will probably care about their near-sabotage of such a high-investment and high-profile event.

Finally, as international sports also become a geopolitical playing field, the issue of foul play between rival leaders has become apparent. An interesting example of this was the beIN controversy that took place during the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar (2017-2021). The Qatar-based beIN Media Group, which holds exclusive rights to broadcast international tournaments and matches in the MENA region through its channels, was banned in all blockading countries; however, their content was made available by beoutQ, an illicit streaming service with ties to the Saudi state, as ruled by the WTO. The piracy case was later instrumentalised by Qatar in an attempt to prevent Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United.

This incident, together with the trends discussed above, makes one key revelation — for Gulf leaders, sports have become a valuable device of power, both in its material (economic) and normative (diplomatic) forms. 

* Note: Due to the fact that Qatar is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Qatar Grand Prix (first held on November 21, 2021) will not take place this year. However, the fourth F1 race in the Gulf will resume in 2023 with a ten-year contract.