News | Gulf States - WM Katar 2022 The Great Game

The politics of sport in Arab Gulf monarchies



Sebastian Sons,

The Lusail Stadium in Qatar is one of the venues for the 2022 Men’s World Cup. Human rights organizations report that workers were exploited and had their human rights violated during the construction of the signature project in the planned city of Lusail, which is situated north of the Qatari capital of Doha. Photo: Visit Qatar via Unsplash

It was not long after the verdict had been announced that the international public reacted with a mixture of surprise and scorn: in October 2022, the Asian Olympic Council announced that Saudi Arabia had won the bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.

Sebastian Sons works as a researcher at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). His most recent book is Menschenrechte sind nicht käuflich. Wie die WM in Katar auch bei uns zu einer neuen Politik führen muss (Atrium, 2022).

Translated by Hunter Bolin and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective

This outcome caused media representatives and political analysts alike to shake their heads, as Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s hottest and driest countries and has neither freshwater resources nor regions with guaranteed snowfall. The Winter Games are set to take place in the 2,600-metre-high Sarawat Mountains in the northwestern region of Tabuk. Although the temperatures in the region are ten degrees below the country’s annual average, the region very rarely sees high levels of snowfall.

Saudi Arabia: Signature Projects and “Sportwashing”

In addition to leading the country to the cutting edge of the modern world and increasing its economic and touristic appeal, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is seeking to further push the envelope by implementing his vision of a “new Saudi Arabia” — regardless of the cost. Hosting the Winter Olympic Games constitutes part of this vision, and he plans to see these plans through, despite all of the opposition and hostility they have garnered.

Under MBS, the kingdom’s fate is determined by a new style of rule that is driven by ambition, ego, and influence. On the one hand, Saudi society is opening up, women’s rights are being strengthened, and serious investments are being made into the entertainment sector. Yet at the same time, critics of the regime are subject to harsh and repressive measures — a course of action that large parts of the population admire and approve of.

Muhammad bin Salman’s agenda involves ushering in a constant flow of change and building a “new Saudi Arabia” that is drastically different from the old, inflexible kingdom. He allows women to drive, promotes tourism, and invests billions in developing the country’s sport industry.

Under the aegis of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia has organized an increasing number of major international sporting events in recent years. Since November 2021, Saudi Arabia has held its own Grand Prix Formula One race in the port city of Jeddah. From 2023 onwards, this event will be held in the original capital and birthplace of the Saudi kingdom, the historic town of Diriyah, which is located near Riyadh.

The state-owned oil company Aramco announced a strategic partnership with Formula One in March 2020, and bought shares in Aston Martin in February 2022. The kingdom has also hosted wrestling competitions, boxing matches, and the Riyadh Marathon in the spring of 2022, which attracted international runners to the kingdom for the first time. Saudi Arabia also submitted a bid to host the Italian Serie A cup final for the next several years. The Spanish Super Cup is hosted in the capital city of Riyadh and attracts the elite of Spanish football.

Another highlight of Saudi sport policy is the investment in the English Premier League club Newcastle United. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) paid around 360 million euro to purchase 80 percent of the traditional club. And just like that, the club from the northeast of England looks to have become one of the world’s richest overnight. With total assets estimated at 480 billion US dollars, PIF is one of the strongest sovereign wealth funds in the world and invests in companies worldwide. The Saudi leadership provided the money for the investment in Newcastle because the deal aligned with their interests. After all, MBS chairs the PIF board, and his stalwart and the fund’s managing director, Yassir al-Rumayyan, was appointed as the Saudi representative on the Newcastle United board of directors.

Although Newcastle is not yet a top English club, it became immediately clear after the takeover that a major goal of the Saudi investment was to quickly transform the club into a serious contender in the Premier League. To this end, during the winter transfer period of 2021/22, Newcastle invested more than 100 million euro — more money than any other team — in new players. By comparison, the 18 clubs in the Bundesliga spent a total of only 60.6 million euro on transfers.

But there is more at stake for Saudi Arabia than simply using football to restore its tarnished image — or what’s known as “sportwashing”. Newcastle’s location on the River Tyne and its connection to the North Sea makes it an asset within the broader framework Saudi Arabia’s economic ambitions: the country plans to get more involved in maritime logistics in the future, and even published its own strategy to this end in June 2021. Newcastle could become a key logistical component in this strategy.

Saudi Arabia also wants to invest more heavily in renewable energies, and it plans to invest in this sector in Newcastle as well. Finally, along with Egypt and Greece, Saudi Arabia is considering making a bid to host the 2030 World Cup.

Ecological Risks

However, these kinds of investments and manoeuvres in sport policy also pose great risks.

For example, the sport facilities and accommodation options for guests and athletes for the Winter Olympic Games do not currently exist. The winter resort Trojena is set to be built in the next few years, and is predicted to attract 700,000 tourists annually. There is also talk of housing 7,000 people there by 2030 — or at least, this is what the crown prince wants. But in order for this to happen, a futuristic winter sport resort would need to be built on a barren mountainous site by 2026.

In Trojena, a hotel called The Vault is set to be built as part of a vertical village in the mountainside, as is an artificial lake that will be rigged with technically complex pipelines in order to maintain a supply of fresh water. Meanwhile, there are plans to cover the slopes with artificial snow, since the temperature rarely drops below zero degrees Celsius.

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace see these kinds of plans as a harbinger of environmental disaster, since they would be detrimental to the ecosystem and would require huge amounts of energy. Another fear is that — as has been the case in the past — members of local tribes will be displaced or even arrested and sentenced to death in the process of construction.

For the Saudi crown prince, however, these incalculable risks seem negligible. According to him, these mega-projects in sport and tourism are also meant to create jobs for young Saudi men and women who are entering the labour market and have long been unable to find employment in the public sector. Youth unemployment in the country is still close to 30 percent.

Under MBS, efforts are underway to decrease the country’s reliance on foreign workers and to hire more Saudi nationals (“Saudization”). Still, around one third of the country’s population of 30 million comes from abroad. Despite positive economic developments within the country as a whole in recent years, for many people the lack of prospects, social frustration, and threat of unemployment have become a worrying reality.

Meanwhile, investments in the sport industry are another step towards attracting tourists and foreign companies and thus diversifying the economy, which is still highly dependent on oil revenues.

MBS also wants to use sport to repair the kingdom’s tarnished public image: since he was appointed as crown prince, he has been partly responsible for a war in Yemen, fuelled the conflict with Iran, and has pursued a harsh policy of repressing critics. In October 2018, this policy even culminated in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Many — including the US intelligence agency CIA — claim that MBS sent out a hit squad to assassinate his loathed critic.

More recently, 81 people were executed in March 2022 — the largest wave of executions the kingdom has seen in decades.

Qatar: “Networked Diplomacy” and the Politics of Sport

Saudi sport policy under MBS follows the same business model that the small neighbouring monarchies of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have long pursued.

While Saudi Arabia was late to arrive on the scene of Arab Gulf sport politics, Qatar in particular has attained the status of a global superpower in the sport world by hosting the World Cup. On 2 December 2010, when Qatar was awarded the honour of hosting of the World Cup, the country secured its status as both a platform and networking partner in the sport world. Football and sport are part of the ruling elite’s strategy of exaggerating the county’s perceived size. After all, the “little state” is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia to its west and Iran to its east — two regional powers that are locked in an ongoing cycle of competition and conflict with one another.

The ruling family in Qatar, the Al Thani, has long known that this volatile geostrategic situation could endanger its own position of power. Since the nineteenth century, Al Thani rule has come under repeated threat from external rivals, including Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud or Bahrain’s Al Khalifa. In an attempt to counter these threats, the Al Thani emirs have forged alliances and entered into agreements with protective powers — as they did with the British in the late nineteenth century and in 1916 — which has ultimately cemented the close partnership between the Al Thani and Britain.

These types of alliances still exist today with the US, and the Qatari rulers under the current Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani also maintain a conciliatory relationship with other partners. Together with Iran, Qatar maintains the largest gas field in the world, which is the source of the country’s immense prosperity. In addition to this, it also supports the Palestinian organization Hamas, and years ago it allowed the Afghan Taliban to open a liaison office in the Qatari capital of Doha.

In this way, Qatar has managed to establish itself as an influential networking partner that is in dialogue with actors with whom not everyone has a direct line of communication.

Sport plays into this strategy of networked diplomacy. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1971, Qatar is estimated to have hosted more than 500 sporting events, such as the 2006 Asian Games or the 2015 World Handball Championship.

Due to its investment in the Paris St. Germain (PSG) football club, Qatar has become drastically more influential within the politics of European football. Just a few months after the successful bid for the World Cup, Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) purchased PSG for about 100 million euro. QSI belongs to the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the state-owned investment fund led by the Qatari emir. Since then, Qatar has paid approximately 1.39 billion euro in transfer fees in order to purchase top international stars like Lionel Messi, Neymar Junior, and Kylian Mbappé — a move that secured PSG sixth place on the list of clubs that paid the most on transfer spending in the past decade.

PSG has won a number of French championships thanks to Qatari money, which has given Qatar an excellent opportunity to invest heavily in the French market and strengthen its political ties with France. At the same time, PSG has become an opportunity for Qatar to advertise, as it has done by turning the team into an advertising platform for the state-owned airline Qatar Airways. The airline also sponsors other top international clubs such as the German championship winner FC Bayern Munich, the traditional Italian club AS Rome, and the Argentine club Boca Juniors. Qatar Airways also sponsors entire football leagues in Nepal and the Philippines.

This is Qatar’s method for presenting itself as a good partner in the home countries of many migrants working in Qatar, thereby also distracting from the state’s structural exploitation of migrant workers.

UAE: Pulling the Strings behind the Scenes

Ever since its 2008 takeover of the traditional English football club Manchester City, the UAE has joined Qatar in going to extreme lengths to upgrade its sport policies, but with the former pursuing a different strategy. In contrast to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE acts less as a platform and more as a shadowy figure that pulls the strings behind the scenes.

Although Abu Dhabi also hosts a Formula One race, the Emirati rulers under Crown Prince and President Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) are more concerned with using sport to strengthen their business models and diversify their sources of revenue than with having a winning team.

Consider the outcome of UAE’s takeover of Manchester City: while Qatari money transformed PSG into an all-star club in recent years, the majority of the players that have been signed by Manchester City are indeed talented, but they are hardly superstar material. The exceptions are Belgian midfield star Kevin de Bruyne and Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, as well as their manager, Pep Guardiola. Nevertheless, with the help of Emirati money, the club spent more than 1.6 billion euro on new players between 2011 and 2021 — the highest amount of any European club.

The takeover of Manchester City by the City Football Group — more than 80 percent of which is owned by Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment and thus the state — has also enabled the UAE to invest billions in Manchester’s real estate sector, thus diversifying its economic portfolio. Saudi Arabia did the same thing in Newcastle, as did Qatar in Paris. While Manchester City is the flagship of Emirati sport investment, City Football Group is developing an extensive global football network as if it were investing in shipping or port logistics, and has acquired stakes in clubs in New York, Melbourne, Yokohama, Torque in Uruguay, Girona in Spain, and Chengdu in China.

Like Qatar Airways in the case of Qatar, the state-owned airlines Emirates and Etihad also serve as projection screens for the Emirati diversification strategy. Of course, this commitment also carries risks: while the buy-in from the Emirates quickly helped the “Sky Blues” ascend to the status of one of the top English clubs, they are repeatedly accused of violating UEFA’s rules pertaining to how football clubs should be financed.

For example, the team’s main sponsor Etihad Airlines, the UAE’s state-owned airline, is alleged to have transferred more than £60 million directly from Emirati owner Mansour bin Zayed — brother of Emirati Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed — to the club, rather than the mere 8 million pounds that it had officially reported. As a result, Manchester City was fined 30 million euro in 2020 and banned from the Champions League for two years.

This decision was overturned a year later by the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) — officially due to lack of evidence, though reports cast doubt on that. Manchester City is said to have received millions from the Emirati government on several different occasions in order to be able to invest 1.7 billion euros in assembling its team of star players over the past ten years.

In Abu Dhabi, the country’s political fate is determined by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed (MBZ), a de facto ruler every bit as ambitious as Saudi Arabia’s. Under his leadership, the UAE is pursuing a strategy of alleged restraint in terms of foreign policy, has proclaimed a pragmatic and constructive approach towards all actors in the region, and is generally considered a hub of regional and global trade and hyper-modernization.

There are several ways in which the UAE takes from the “soft powerplaybook: by providing developmental aid in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, developing pragmatic religious policies, engaging with scientific advancements in climate protection and funding space technology and renewable energies, participating in multilateral and international forums, and supporting global cultural activities. All of these form part of a calculated effort to exert political and economic influence.

Further examples of this include the way in which the UAE is not only involved in the war in Yemen, but is also militarily involved in Libya and in the Horn of Africa. In addition, the UAE has expanded its global influence as a maritime trading power through the logistics giant DP World, which owns a global network of ports located in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The UAE has adopted the motto “he who controls the sea routes controls the world” — a mantra that has turned the country into a great power, with the UAE even being referred to as “Little Sparta”.

Another sensational moment was when the country normalized relations with Israel in 2020. The country once considered Israel an enemy due to the way it had handled the negotiation of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But now, the UAE’s support for the Palestinians has been reduced to mere folklore. Instead, the UAE has increased its exchange and dialogue with Israel in recent years: the two are united under the credo “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Israel and the Gulf states share a common fear of an expansionist Iran, which has driven the UAE and other Gulf states to increasingly cosy up to Israel.

Sport Policy: A Double-Edged Sword

For Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, sport figures into policymaking, functioning as an important tool in their quest to secure power, expand economic and political influence in the region and the world, and protect themselves from external threats.

Sport has played a major role in driving identity politics in the Arab Gulf region. That is to say, it has helped autocratic rulers engender a form of nationalism and patriotism that legitimizes their power, provides their own populations with bread and circuses, and helps the elites present themselves as the architects of a socially mobile, sport-loving, engaged society.

At the same time, the Gulf monarchies are also increasingly in competition with one another with regard to sport policies, vying to host the most important and prominent sporting events and trying to outdo each other. The fact that the World Cup will take place in Qatar has provoked envy and hostility from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

For example, both states, along with Bahrain and Egypt, made subtle hints that part of the intended outcome of their blockade of Qatar from June 2017 to January 2021 was to take the World Cup award away from their neighbour. Shortly after the outbreak of the “Gulf crisis” by the state-owned club PSG, Qatar fought back by signing Neymar Junior for 222 million euro, the highest amount ever paid for a player transfer. This transfer was a show of force to the blockading states and demonstrates that all Gulf monarchies politicize and instrumentalize sport for their own ends. At the time, Qatar was able to assert itself in its struggle for supremacy in the Gulf, but the Arabian Peninsula’s overall standing as an investment location was damaged.

Policies around sport are a double-edged sword, as is evidenced by the criticism of the World Cup in Qatar, which has been levelled against the country on the basis of corruption, the exploitation of migrant workers, and human rights violations. Thus, the politics of sport in the Arab Gulf states are caught in a conundrum between trying to generate international attention on the one hand and becoming subject to hostility and accusations on the other, which consequently damages the countries’ own reputations.

Controversial issues such as structural human rights violations, rampant repression, and a lack of democracy will be discussed at every major sporting event that is held in the Gulf monarchies — even after the World Cup. The Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia will once again demonstrate this fact.