DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It was hardly a marquee moment in the history of world sports. Curious crowds on a Middle Eastern beach watched events that included horse riders slicing a lemon with a sword and a cousin of croquet called woodball.
Yet there was the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, looking on from the VIP seats and then coming down to present some medals at the Asian Beach Games in Oman earlier this month.
If Rogge seemed out of place, he wasn’t. The scene was just a sign of the times. Fans can expect more – perhaps many more – such courtesy calls to the Gulf by the stewards of international sports as the money-soaked region that once begged for attention from the IOC and others is now bursting with eager suitors.
They are emissaries along the new silk road of sports. In little more than a decade, the Gulf’s wealth and boundless ambitions have lured big-name events and A-list athletes, while the region’s leaders have developed a reputation as deep-pocket hosts who are still hungry for more.
“We go to new lands,” FIFA President Joseph Blatter said Dec. 2 after announcing tiny Qatar’s surprise selection for the 2022 World Cup.
So new that sports fans in some places had to consult a map.
Searches for Qatar on Google instantly spiked. Announcers outside the Middle East tried to wrap their tongues around the correct pronunciation: KAT-tar or GUH-tur but definitely not Cutter.
Then critics got busy. A running theme, particularly in the runner-up bidder America, was a shrill retort: How does Qatar merit one of the crown jewels of international sports?
Such comments just mean the questioner hasn’t been paying attention.
The sports migration to the Gulf has been going on for years – part of a new world landscape of sports in which economic clout has shifted from Europe and North America to markets where authorities see Rafael Nadal, Tiger Woods and roaring Formula 1 races as something more.
In the Gulf, it’s a way to matter beyond just being the world’s fuel pump.
“The old thinking in the Gulf was to try to stay out of sight,” said Patrick Nikolas Theros, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and currently president of the U.S.-Qatar business council. “Now they see sports as an effective way to make Qatar and other Gulf countries important and important to other people.”
The Gulf strategy to buy respectability takes other forms, such as bringing in annexes of top schools including New York University and Georgetown, and museums such as the planned Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and architect I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.
But sports adds some of the Gulf’s favorite currencies: celebrity and splash.
The Gulf states – led by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – have elevated sports to something akin to a national cause. Their treasuries are thrown open to bankroll first-class facilities such as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit (complete with Ferrari theme park), Dubai’s airport-size Meydan horse racing complex and the array of air-conditioned stadiums planned for the World Cup.
Dubai, meanwhile, is mulling a run at the 2020 Olympics. But if not Dubai, certainly another pitch for the games will come someday from the Gulf if the current momentum remains.
Even Rogge gave a personal nudge while in Oman, saying the IOC would welcome another Olympic bid from the Middle East after Qatar’s failed effort the 2016 games.
“The geography of sports is changing,” said Ahmad Mohammed Al Rahoomi, international spokesman for the Dubai Sports Council, during the SportAccord gathering in April that brought together sports officials from around the world. “When people used to think of this region it was only oil. Now they are starting to think of sports.”
In reality, one feeds off the other. The Gulf’s staggering oil and gas wealth powers the sports boom. And the more the events shift to the booming region, the more money that’s set aside to try to get more.
How’s this for an expected guest list: Nadal, Roger Federer and other top men’s tennis players in Abu Dhabi and Qatar’s capital Doha; Asia’s top soccer teams in Doha for a continentwide tournament; Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson at the Abu Dhabi golf championships; Colin Montgomerie and Europe’s other Ryder Cup champions in Bahrain; rising Kenyan marathon star Eliud Kiptanui in Dubai.
That’s just the calendar for January.
A veteran sports marketer, Donal Kilalea, said the initial push to bring competitions to the region began with companies such as Emirates airline looking to raise their profile.
“They saw it as a way for branding,” said Kilalea, head of Promoseven in Dubai. “Later, the region’s leaders began to pay attention. Now, it has coalesced into a priority on all sides.”
But the sports parade also drags the region in some uncomfortable directions.
Opening to the sporting world also means opening to Israel, which has no diplomatic ties with Gulf states and whose presence gives Arab security forces the jitters.
Last year, the UAE suffered a serious image blow when it denied a visa to Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer for the Dubai championships. This year, Peer was allowed to play, but was limited to her hotel and the courts. A special security squad also was assigned for Israel’s delegation at this month’s FINA short-course swimming championships in Dubai.
Being in the world spotlight also leaves deeper social issues exposed. Among them: Is local Gulf Arab culture being steamrolled in the quest for sports prestige?
It’s not a new question. The Gulf’s staggering growth is built on importing cheap laborers and expensive white-collar talent, creating lopsided demographics such as five foreigners for every local-born Emirati in Dubai.
But in Doha, the questions were being tossed around with new urgency even before the last bleat of the vuvuzelas to celebrate the World Cup selection. Some conservative Muslim clerics called it a sellout of Islamic values to invite the World Cup party, including the prospect of boozy “fan zones” in a capital once so sleepy that, a generation ago, the big nightspot was a Dairy Queen.
One cleric suggested Qataris consider an Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to escape the Cup.
Then, too, there is the sensitive issue of who actually builds the sports palaces, including the $4 billion in new World Cup arenas. Gulf nations have been under considerable pressure from rights groups to improve conditions in the labor camps housing the mostly South Asian workers who have raised the towering cities of Dubai, Doha and elsewhere.
Earlier this month, the International Labor Organization urged Gulf countries to boost protections for hard-hat workers, including establishing a minimum wage. In many countries, the workers receive less than $300 a month and have their passports held by companies so they don’t seek other jobs.
None of these messier questions, however, got in the way of Gulf leaders toasting Qatar.
The UAE quickly funneled an extra $3.8 million to its Olympic teams to boost homegrown competitors in a region that embraced passport-for-play policies. Qatar, for example, began shopping for Bulgarian weightlifters in the 1990s with international medals in mind. Swimmers, runners and others have also been recruited and often given freshly minted Arab names to go with their new Gulf passports.
In Oman, the world track and field governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, is “99 percent” ready to approve its first Olympic-standard training center in the Middle East, IAAF official Elio Locatelli told the Muscat Daily.
Even the NBA is now eyeing the Gulf.
The league held its first event in Abu Dhabi this month with slam dunk exhibitions, clinics and former Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon as the ambassador.
Aly El Hamamsy, managing director of the NBA’s Middle East operations, noted, “We are continually working to promote the game across the Middle East.”
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