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Simon Chadwick | Gulf détente opens door for sports collaboration

Sport was caught in the crossfire of the four-year feud between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that ended with an agreement between the Middle Eastern rivals this month. The peace deal raises intriguing prospects for cooperation and joint projects.

Professor Simon Chadwick
Professor Simon Chadwick

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have finally made up, after almost four years of sometimes bitter diplomatic feuding. Many in sport will be breathing a sigh of relief, not least Fifa with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar looming. Football’s showpiece looks set to avoid complications including travel blockades and being caught in the crossfire of a PR battle.

Relief is also palpable amongst Fifa’s tournament sponsors, who would have faced the challenge of activating their deals in 2022 whilst not antagonising the adversaries. The next two years look like they will be easier to navigate than many sponsors had anticipated.

The Qatar-Saudi feud began in 2017, prompted by Saudi Arabia and its allies accusing Qatar of, amongst other things, supporting terrorist groups and being too close to Iran. Doha consistently denied the allegations. A thawing of relations between the government in Riyadh and its allies – namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – and Doha came after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting early this month. Full diplomatic relations and trade ties between the countries have been restored. An end to the land, air and sea blockade of Qatar, the Qatari withdrawal of all lawsuits against its neighbours, and a cessation of media hostilities are the three main tenets of the agreement. However, there are still details to work through and plenty for the sports industry to ponder.

The 2022 Fifa World Cup has immediately come under the spotlight. The world’s biggest sports mega-event can now take place in a less turbulent and more consensual environment. However, some observers believe January’s agreement is only a temporary truce and that the feud will reignite once Fifa’s bandwagon has moved on.

Still, with borders open, Qatar’s assertion that the World Cup will be a regional event can now be fully realised. Lifting the barriers at the country’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, is good news for the tournament as the latter has a large and fervent football fanbase which will now be able to travel to games.

The world’s busiest airport hub, Dubai, which is only an hour from Hamad International Airport in Doha, is open for Qatari business again. This immediately boosts transport capacity, enhances tournament access, and adds value to all those Gulf airline sponsorships.

One concern for the World Cup’s organisers has been the potential for accommodation to be in short supply in 2022. Qatari plans for addressing this appear to include glamping and specially commissioned cruise ships. The opening of air routes will help ease accommodation problems, with, for example, Bahrain no more than 45 minutes away.

There has been speculation that some matches in 2022 will be staged outside Qatar. This talk was heightened by the appearance of Fifa president Gianni Infantino at this month’s GCC meeting. However, given that Qatar has spent 10 years and hundreds of billions of dollars getting its stadiums ready, it seems unlikely that match sharing is on the agenda. It is more realistic to anticipate the sharing of fan zones or training camps, although both would still come with issues.

The Qatari Football Association has already agreed a training camp deal with its Iranian counterpart which could see some qualifying teams being based on Kish Island just off Iran’s coast. How this sits with Riyadh remains to be seen. Were training camps to be shared among neighbouring countries, there could be heated discussions about which plays host to which national team. One imagines there being a frenzied pursuit of Brazil and Germany, and more tepid contests for other qualifying nations.

Another area in which we could see regional cooperation is around the World Cup’s legacy, and how it addresses some of the social challenges facing the region. Qatar’s Generation Amazing is a World Cup legacy project focused upon promoting social cohesion and projecting soft power. Qatar and its GCC partners share concerns about social cohesion between men and women, between different ethnicities, and between often disparate immigrant communities, implying a possible role for Generation Amazing beyond Qatar’s borders. The soft power dimension could, however, prove a stumbling block, as it might take Qatari messaging to the front doors of nations that do not necessarily want it.

One assumes that Gianni Infantino will be keen on positioning both Fifa and football as forces for good within the region, which raises other possibilities. The GCC nations are in the midst of a health crisis, with issues such as soaring rates of diabetes. Cross-border cooperation in this area could enable cordial relations and tackle a tangible problem.

There are several other points of convergent interest among the GCC members, linked to the World Cup and more generally to the development of sport in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are all committed to investing in sport, which has led to the creation of innovation hubs, events being staged, and start-up businesses emerging. There could be some further, interesting collaborative opportunities ahead. For example, one can imagine the Gulf region wanting to establish a position as a global hub for the growing esports sector. Could we see Fifa staging a parallel 2022 esports World Cup in Saudi Arabia?

The regional penchant for event hosting could bring the GCC nations closer together, or drive them apart again. Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are already established members of the global motorsport ecosystem and Saudi Arabia is fast joining them. This year, for the first time, Saudi will host an F1 Grand Prix and for the second time is staging the Paris-Dakar Rally. Qatar also has aspirations in motorsport, which raises interesting co-hosting possibilities.

A recent point of contention between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was the hosting rights for the 2030 and 2034 Asian Games, Doha eventually winning the right to stage the former and Riyadh the latter. Another potential flashpoint remains – the 2032 Olympic Games, which both countries have expressed an interesting in hosting. Perhaps a joint Olympics bid could be in the offing.

But before we get to 2024, when the host of  the 2032 Olympics is announced, there is much to be resolved between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In sport, this includes the not insignificant matter of beoutQ’s pirating of beIN Sports’ television content, a subject of considerable acrimony and a World Trade Organisation investigation.

The work that remains to be done suggests that January’s apparent diplomatic denouement must be seen as the beginning of an end rather than a conclusion to the rift between the GCC nations. Nevertheless, there is much to look forward to in the Gulf’s new sporting future.

Professor Simon Chadwick is Director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at the EM Lyon Business School.

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