A couple months ago (or what feels like a decade in pandemic time), UFC head honcho Dana White made the headlines with the idea of a “Fight Island,” ostensibly a private island where the organization could return to producing events as quickly as possible. While this never took off, it has now been reconfigured, with next month’s series of UFC events in Abu Dhabi now dubbed “Fight Island.” This is not the manifestation of White’s early-pandemic vision of some quasi-dystopian oasis of violence: what most are calling Fight Island is Yas Island, a man-made resort island in Abu Dhabi, a locale that has previously hosted multiple UFC events. The buzz surrounding the upcoming fights, as well as Saudi Arabia’s contentious bid to take over Newcastle United FC in the English Premier League, offers a chance to reflect on the growing role of sports in the Middle East.
As the slew of links below suggest, there is much to think about in this context. But first there’s the question: why are these countries so focused on building their sports portfolios, whether in the form of foreign team ownership or mega-event production? The answer is two-fold and unsurprising: money and politics. First, there is the obvious economic angle: as the world grinds away from oil-dependency, these rich states are scrambling to diversify their interests, in part by reinventing themselves as tourist destinations with a range of cultural offerings. It’s not just spending on sports, but a range of arts, entertainment, and leisure investments. Second, the sports diplomacy and soft power angle: sports are a key means of building an international reputation and positive “brand” image, one often reliant upon the seemingly global acceptance of the shaky idea that sports are somehow above politics and other ugly stuff. In hosting big-time sports events, nations bring themselves positive international PR, an excuse to bring influential people together (again, in allegedly apolitical contexts), and attract international investment and partnerships in large-scale infrastructural projects (yes, this circles back to the economy, as most things do.).
- Starting with the topical: here’s a really nice overview of the UFC/Yas Island project, including fight details, corona protocols, and a history of the UFC at the site. Here’s the latest on the Saudi takeover attempt of Newcastle United, which had hit a roadblock due to an ongoing piracy scandal/proxy battle with Qatar (about which I wrote a short post about previously).
- To dive deeper into the background of sport and soft power in the region: here’s a timely overview of soccer-specific efforts across the region from USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy. For Saudi Arabia specifically, there’s this piece I wrote last year, when tensions arose around a WWE event in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal. Qatar, while not in the headlines at the moment, has been a major player in this realm, having successfully secured the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an event that is becoming a bigger and bigger deal as sports will remain decidedly abnormal for at least another year. (If you’re wondering how the Gulf State somehow secured the crown jewel of the sporting world…there are serious allegations that it was not all above board.) This overview from the Middle East Institute is a nice introduction to the country’s strategy.
- Even when mega-brands and wealthy nations are involved, plans don’t always materialize. To wit: Spanish soccer club Real Madrid’s ambitious and failed attempt to place a branded luxury island in the emirate of Ras al Khaimah. If you have a subscription to the Athletic, this is an excellent deep dive on how things fell apart. If you don’t, this article will suffice.
- It is hardly a surprise that not everyone thinks this is all fun and games. Critics accuse the Gulf States of “sportswashing,” a neologism coined by Amnesty International. The term means what it sounds like: using sports to obscure an undesirable reputation, particularly in the realm of human rights. The journalist Karim Zidan is probably the best author on the subject. Here’s his take on US-Saudi sports relations and a detailed critique of Morocco. If you’re in more of a listening mood, here’s a recent podcast featuring Zidan, wherein he covers a lot of this territory in only 20 minutes. Worth it for the background alone, even if you don’t accept the sportswashing critique.