The spread of sports in the Middle East and Arab countries has gradually increased. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco… Until a few years ago, few people associated these countries with high-level football or sports in general. But major events such as the recent World Cup and Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to victory have put the spotlight on these countries.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia hosted Spain’s annual cup tournament, the Supercopa de Espana, for the third time in four years. Morocco hosted the 2018 edition. The irony of Middle Eastern countries hosting another country’s domestic tournaments is not lost on anyone – not just any country, it’s Spain, the main soccer power.
Brands such as Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates Airlines and Turkish Airlines, among others, sponsor major clubs, leagues and leagues around the world. Major European clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are owned by state-funded sovereign wealth funds. Skeptics have dubbed the increased commitment and investment “sportwashing”, a term used to describe the practice of enhancing reputations through sport, whether for an individual, company or government.
Many others believe it is the timely diversification away from oil, as the global push for cleaner energy does not bode well for these countries’ reliance on oil, and liquid gold.
In the world of motorsport, many of the Golf Grand Prix circuits have been regular stops on the Formula 1 calendar. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has now been the season finale for nine consecutive years and hosted Max Verstappen’s first world championship amid much last-lap controversy. Against Lewis Hamilton in 2021.
Despite the weather in Bahrain, Istanbul, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the races attract large crowds of spectators around the world and can be called a success. India, on the other hand, has not held a world race at the Buddha International Circuit in Noida for almost a decade.
Countries like Qatar and Bahrain have an edge over India in hosting such major events because of the availability of funds and the willingness to spend them on such endeavours.
Many sponsorships. Take for example Saudi Aramco, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, which has been one of the biggest sponsors of Formula One over the years. It is a public company and a large chain that is pushing the country to invest more in sports.
It is the most popular sport among expatriate communities in the Middle East, especially the UAE, which hosted the 2018 and 2022 AFC Asian Cups, co-hosted the 2021 T20 World Cup and also the IPL. Its popularity is mainly due to the presence of Indian and Pakistani diasporas in the region. Even countries like Bahrain, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been given associate status by the International Criminal Court. Kuwait has been an affiliate member for nearly two decades now. Oman co-hosted the 2021 T20 World Cup and has ODI status.
The Middle East’s involvement in international cricket dates back to the 1980s – Sharjah hosted the Asian Cup in 1984 (and in 1995). It was in Sharjah that Sachin Tendulkar played one of his best ODIs, called “Desert Storm” against Australia in 1998.
The region has the potential to not only be a stadium, but also to nurture real contenders in cricket, just as Morocco is in football.
WWE calls itself “Sports Entertainment”, although professional wrestling does not have the status of a sport per se. Although not as popular as it used to be, it still has a large following around the world, especially in Asia, with better communication and distribution in recent years.
This month, rumors circulated online that WWE had been sold to a Saudi company. The rumors were credible as Saudi Arabia has gone to great lengths to host various WWE shows since 2014. There have been 11 shows so far, including three house shows and eight pay-per-view/TV events.
The events helped the country in its efforts to be more liberal and progressive. Female superstars still have to cover up almost completely, but last year two of them – Becky Lynch and Lita – appeared on a billboard in Riyadh for the first time. This was seen as a major step for women’s rights and representation in sports.
There have also been WWE events in India in the last decade, but the story is similar to Formula 1. Not to mention that they are government sponsored, the entertainment tax has been taken out of these events, and it is becoming unattractive to host them. .
There was pressure to promote sports such as golf, basketball, badminton and athletics in the Gulf as well. Qatar will host the 2030 Asian Games, and Saudi Arabia will host the 2034 edition. The Middle East is poised to host increasingly important opportunities. The area is poised to become an important sports hub in the near future.