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Could the Gulf become an Olympics contender?

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been a regular fixture on the Formula One calendar since 2009 Twitter
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been a regular fixture on the Formula One calendar since 2009

From the FIFA World Cup to Formula 1, the region is playing host to a growing number of top sporting events, but could still have its sights on the ultimate prize

When English golfer Mark James walked off the 18th green at Emirates Golf Club in Dubai on March 5 1989, having won the inaugural Desert Classic tournament, he could not have predicted the emergence of the region as a global sporting destination. That same year, snooker star Stephen Hendry beat Doug Mountjoy to win the Dubai Duty Free Classic at the Al-Nasr Stadium in Dubai. There was little fanfare.

Less than 35 years later, the UAE, and the wider GCC, is competing to become the go-to region for promoters of major global sporting events. The Gulf now hosts six European Tour golf events every year including the end-of-season DP World Tour Championship. 

The 2022 Dubai Desert Classic winner Victor Hovland is almost £1 million ($1.3 million) better off. Back in 1989, James picked up a cheque for less than £49,000 for winning what was then known as the Karl Litten Desert Classic, named after the famous course designer. 

But golf represents just a fraction of the Gulf’s burgeoning sporting prowess. The region now plays host to the full gamut of prestigious sports, from Formula 1, to football, to fencing.

The World Cup in Qatar will offer a big clue as to whether the Gulf has the infrastructure to host global sporting events
The World Cup in Qatar will offer a big clue as to whether the Gulf has the infrastructure to host global sporting events

World Cup test

If Qatar manages to host a successful FIFA World Cup this winter, the odds will shorten on either Doha or Dubai hosting the ultimate prize, the Olympic Games, in the not-too-distant future.

Michael Bessey, GCC regional representative for global public affairs consulting firm ASG, has been tracking progress in the Gulf region over the past few years and sees a number of positives that suggest that one of the Gulf countries could host the Olympics. 

Doha bid for the 2016 Olympics, while Dubai has previously announced its intent to bid for the Games by 2022. Doha will host the football World Cup at the end of this year, Dubai will host COP28 next year, while Saudi Arabia plans to bid for the World Expo 2030, following Dubai’s positive experience with the event. 

“Dubai and Doha, in particular, have built the level of infrastructure needed to host the Olympics and a track record of hosting major events.,” said Bessey.

According to Bessey, the performance of Qatar later this year will be central to shaping the future of hosting global sporting events in the region.

“The success of the World Cup could be make-or-break for Doha’s ambitions to host the Olympics in the future. Dubai, on the heels of its Expo success, will no doubt be closely watching how the World Cup plays out. If the World Cup is not as successful as Qatar hopes, it could have broader implications for the willingness of international sporting organisations (including the IOC) to hold major events in the Gulf,” he said.

“That said, a less than stellar showing by Doha could also present an opening for Dubai to cement its position as the natural choice for an Olympics in the Gulf.” 

One man confident of Qatar’s success is former England football captain David Beckham, although this is to be expected as he is an official ambassador for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

At the tournament draw in early April, Beckham said: “Fans are going to have a great experience. In the past, fans have had to travel between games but in Qatar, they’re going to be able to go to more than one match a day because it is such a compact tournament. I think the fans will enjoy what Qatar has to offer. There will be great food, a warm welcome from the local people and lots to see and enjoy besides the football.”

Qatar are also in the running to host next year’s Asian Cup after China withdrew due to the coronavirus pandemic. Qatar are the reigning champions from 2019 and will have the infrastructure in place following the World Cup.

Anthony Joshua reclaimed the world heavyweight title in Saudi Arabia
Anthony Joshua reclaimed the world heavyweight title in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s sporting aspirations

But could Saudi Arabia also be in the frame when it comes to the Olympics? Who can forget the shockwaves caused when Britain’s then world champion heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua announced that his title defence would be in the kingdom?

Saudi Arabia is committed to building its sporting reputation further. The Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism have set an ambitious target for sports to contribute 0.6 percent of GDP by 2030, up from approximately 0.2 percent today, with the purpose of also boosting international tourism numbers.

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of major sporting events hosted by Saudi Arabia, including the inaugural Formula 1 race in Jeddah last year, several world championship boxing events and the Saudi International golf tournament.

That’s not to mention the breakaway LIV Golf series, backed by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), who also own Newcastle United Football Club. The series takes in three continents, includes 48 players and is luring some big names away from the established two main existing tours, the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.

Hanan Alowain, partner for the government and public sector at KPMG in Saudi Arabia, said: “Saudi Arabia appears to have begun a new chapter in its sports tourism history. Countries like Saudi Arabia are advancing agendas to build a sporting culture that attracts domestic and international tourists. This requires a vast effort. 

“Saudi Arabia and its peers need to take a close look at what unique qualities their country has to offer sports tourists. These qualities start with geography, but are certainly not limited to it. Thoughtful planning and investment — with the help of today’s technology — can foster just about any sport, anywhere.”

According to consultants PwC, strong government support and growing commercial maturity are helping to raise the Gulf’s profile in the global sporting world.

Economic contribution

Bessey agreed: “The focus on sports is being driven by a combination of economics and geopolitics. The Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, see the sports and entertainment sector as an engine for economic diversification. Major international sporting events are an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure projects and attract international tourism flows. These countries also see sports as a diplomatic and public relations tool. Saudi Arabia has been particularly aggressive in using sports diplomacy to build relations internationally and tout the extent of its economic and cultural progress under Vision 2030 – to mixed results.”  

PwC research shows that while the growth of the global sports market is expected to slow to 3 percent over the next few years, the Middle East region is forecast to see growth of 8.7 percent over the same period.

According to PwC, the GCC states have spent more than £50 billion on sports development, with more to come.

In 2021, when many events were cancelled across the world due to the pandemic, Dubai, and the wider UAE, emerged as a refuge for major sports tournaments, stepping in to host the 2021 ICC Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup. 

Sheikh Mansoor Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, chairman of the Dubai Sports Council, has been clear in his ambitions, saying that expanding sports infrastructure is an integral part of the drive to transform Dubai into the world’s best city to live and work in. He revealed in August 2021 that more than 400 sports events are organised in Dubai each year, of which 130 are international, and the sector contributes AED4 billion ($1 billion) to the economy and employs more than 20,000 people. 

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, has emerged as the international hub for the UFC movement, which is growing in popularity across the world. During the height of the pandemic, several UFC Fight Island events were held in coronavirus ‘bubbles’ on Yas Island, which also hosts the emirate’s Formula 1 race track. The world’s premier mixed martial arts organisation has now rewarded Abu Dhabi with UFC 281, to be held in October, the third event of a five-year partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.

So when it comes to hosting a future Olympics, maybe the region has more than a fighting chance.

Organisers of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics said the overall cost was $13.6 billion
Organisers of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics said the overall cost was $13.6 billion

​​The cost of hosting an Olympic Games

Beyond a demonstration of soft power, staging an Olympic Games has positive economic impacts for the host city. There is typically an increase in construction investment associated with the event, including sports venues, hotels and commercial facilities, and upgrades to transport infrastructure. Tourism revenues also enjoy a boost, not just during the Games, but for several years after as the profile of the host city has been raised to an international audience. However, Olympic hosts often underestimate the cost of staging the Games, as history demonstrates.

  • Montreal 1976 The governing body’s estimated cost of $360 million fell well short of the final $1.6 billion bill. The Games ended up leaving a 30-year legacy of debt for the city.
  • Athens 2004 The final cost of about $15 billion far surpassed the original budget of $6.1 billion. The overrun was due in part to additional security costs following the September 11 terror attacks in the US.
  • London 2012 The city’s official bid put the cost of staging the Games at $4 billion. After it won the event, a review increased the estimated cost to $9.4 billion. The costs of tax, security and programme contingency were among the items listed in a parliamentary filing as having been omitted from the original budget as “the scale and complexity of the undertaking were not appreciated at the time of the bid”.
  • Rio de Janeiro 2016 The bid committee projected a cost of $2.8 billion, but additional infrastructure spending including new bus and metro lines pushed the final outlay to more than $14 billion.
  • Tokyo 2020 The Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak. Costs spiralled from $7.3 billion to more than $15 billion, but the city missed out on its hoped-for 40 million foreign visitors. Fewer than 50,000 spectators were allowed to attend because of the global pandemic.