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World Cup puts focus on Gulf’s business of sport and reputation

Lusail stadium, Qatar Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters
Visitors pose for a selfie outside Lusail stadium – venue of the World Cup final
  • Middle Eastern governments and brands invest billions in sport
  • Critics claim it is more to do with reputation enhancement than business
  • World Cup success is vital for Gulf’s credibility

On Sunday evening, Qatar will take on Ecuador in the opening game of the 2022 World Cup – and the eyes of the world will turn to the Gulf for four weeks.

The final on December 18 is due to be watched by 80,000 fans in the Lusail stadium and a television audience that could pass 1 billion people.

A successful tournament could do much to “improve the global perception and acceptance of Arab cultural heritage and traditions in the Gulf region”, according to a new report from Fitch Solutions. But if the cup is marred by organisational snags or other problems, it would be a “setback” for the Middle East.

“This scenario, although not our core view, would constitute a blow to the region’s tourism industry, and to Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup,” Fitch said.

Qatar 2022 is the latest and biggest example of Gulf countries using sport to try to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbons, open new business opportunities and enhance their international profile.

From football to golf and Formula One to cycling, it is hard to find a sport that has not been touched by the spending power of the Middle East.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others have spent billions worldwide on sporting ventures.

Critics call it “sportswashing”, claiming such investment is being used to improve a country’s reputation and deflect international opproprium.

But those behind the investments say they are motivated by the need to diversify, transform their populations in terms of outlook and ambition through exposure to international competitive sport, and project their respective national “brands” in an increasingly globalised setting.

When the Abu Dhabi United Group bought English Premier League club Manchester City in 2008, it set off a flood of similar deals and new relationships.

One was UAE Team Emirates, which joined the professional cycling circuit in 2017. The team’s biggest star, Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, won the Tour de France in 2020 and 2021.

These victories, along with Manchester City’s 2021-22 Premier League title, have played their part in lifting the UAE to 15th place in the Global Soft Power Index 2022.

Andrew Campbell, managing director (Middle East) at Brand Finance, the UK company that compiles the survey-based study, said the key factors driving soft power in future would continue to be familiarity, reputation and influence.

“The UAE has the opportunity to build its familiarity by participating in global-facing activities and improving integration with economic, social, sporting and diplomatic life across the world,” he said.

Mauro Gianetti, team principal and CEO of UAE Team Emirates, agrees. “A beautiful part of our project is that we are not just representing our sponsors but also an entire country,” he told AGBI.

“Since the team’s foundation in 2017 we have seen amazing growth in cycling as both a sport and a lifestyle choice right across the UAE.”

Tadej Pogacar won the Tour de France in 2020 and 2021 – and took the young rider and king of the mountains titles along with his overall victory both times. Picture: UAE Team Emirates

Gianetti added: “UAE Team Emirates is part of a larger vision and project in the UAE to grow and promote sport as part of an active lifestyle.

“To have our athletes competing and winning on an international stage is a great way to get the local population behind the team as we aim to encourage them to be active and join our wonderful sport.”

“Belonging” to the UAE is a priority for the team, which is adding UK racer Adam Yates to its roster for next season.

The 2023 line-up visited the region in October. “For the new riders it was the perfect moment for them to meet our sponsors and get a good feel for the country and the people we are representing when we travel around the world to the biggest races,” said Gianetti, who added that he had been “blown away” by the passion and the commitment of the team’s supporters in the UAE.

The Emirates airline logo emblazoned on the cyclists’ jerseys has also become familiar to fans of the Premier League – the most watched sports league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories with a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people.

When Manchester City play Arsenal, both of the UAE’s flag carriers are on prominent display. City’s kit and stadium are sponsored by Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, while Arsenal’s shirts and home bear the name of Dubai’s Emirates.

In any match between the two, the pitch-side advertising hoardings will also be dominated by UAE company branding. 

Emirates and Etihad sponsorship soars

Emirates’ list of sport sponsorships began with the first powerboat race held in Dubai in 1987. It has gone on to sponsor various teams and events, covering football, cricket, tennis, motorsports and horse racing.

The airline sector as a whole is a lucrative partner for sport, with $737 million of sponsorship agreements in 2021, according to GlobalData. One of the largest deals was Real Madrid’s shirt partnership with Emirates, worth a reported $82.3 million each year.

“For the UAE there is a domestic angle to the competition as the two airlines, Emirates and Etihad, vie for international business and reflect the innate competition that exists between Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” said Gerald Feierstein, the Middle East Institute’s programme director on diplomacy and the Arabian peninsula.

Arsenal and Manchester City may battle it out on the pitch but their sponsors enjoy a fierce competition of their own
Arsenal and Manchester City battle it out on the pitch. Their sponsors enjoy a fierce rivalry of their own. Picture: Reuters/Ian Walton

“The two airlines’ reputations rise and fall with the respective performance of Arsenal and Manchester City.

“European soccer is a rich field to play because the brand for these football clubs is global, including their popularity in the Gulf itself. The association for the Gulf states with European soccer is a point of pride for their own citizens as well as one that adds to their international ‘name recognition’.”

Sport and international politics

Feierstein added, however, that this increased awareness of Gulf states might not be “an unalloyed blessing”.

He added: “While the branding effort certainly raises international recognition, it has also often been a source of international criticism, whether it is over perceived labour violations in Qatar or criticism of Saudi interference in professional golf’s competitiveness.”

LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded series that is challenging the PGA and European tours, has faced heavy criticism from some of the sport’s superstars, such as Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. Other household-name golfers have joined the breakaway event, though LIV signings such as Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood have been forced to defend their decision during combative press conferences.

This scrutiny has not deterred Riyadh: sport remains a key pillar of its Vision 2030 strategy. Saudi’s Public Investment Fund has also bought a Premier League club, Newcastle United, and Jeddah now hosts a Formula One Grand Prix.

Qatar, meanwhile, isn’t limiting footballing activities to hosting the World Cup. It bought French giants Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 and has signed David Beckham to front a tourism campaign.

For Feierstein, suc activities have become “increasingly popular in the Gulf as the states are awash with cash and see their investment in sports as a way of projecting a more positive image of themselves internationally and domestically.”

He added: “It got a big boost when Qatar successfully secured the host rights for the World Cup. But it’s a game that everyone can play, from Bahrain sponsoring Formula One auto racing to the Saudi efforts to challenge the PGA professional golf tour with its LIV event.”

Saudi’s sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal rejected claims of so-called “sportswashing” in August, when he revealed that the country’s “ultimate goal” was to host the Olympic Games.

The country’s critics were off the mark, he told news agency AFP ahead of a heavyweight boxing clash in Jeddah.

“We’re progressing, we’re moving towards a better society, we’re moving towards a better quality of life, a better country, for the future,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

“The facts show that hosting these events benefit our people and benefit these changes that are happening and benefits living in Saudi.”

In 2034, Riyadh will host the Asian Games, a large-scale multi-sports event, while the kingdom is also bidding to host a major women’s football tournament, the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

Sport’s contribution to Saudi GDP has already grown from $2.4 billion in 2016 to approximately $7 billion today. 

Saudi Arabia have ambitions to host the Olympics
Saudi Arabia’s team enters the stadium at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. The country has ambitions to host the Olympics. Picture: Reuters/Marko Djurica

How to measure the success of soft power

Gauging the value of the Gulf’s enormous outlay on sport is difficult. But Martin Roll, a business adviser and author of Asian Brand Strategy, said sponsorships and stakes could “definitely be measured in monetary terms”. 

“Countries and cities getting into sponsorships, like the UAE and Abu Dhabi, would have undertaken detailed due diligence and strategy plans before they made their decision,” he said.

“The outcome will be measured by awareness levels, engagement, the messages that get across to the audiences, and the change of perceptions created.

“I believe this type of soft power and country brand-building will continue. It reaches millions of people, it places UAE and Abu Dhabi on the world map, and it has a less intrusive nature compared to more commercially loaded message and positioning efforts. 

“It touches on culture and on people’s lives, and would be perceived positively as they relate to sports – something that engages people, brings them together and captures their imagination.” 

Sunny Singh, managing director of Collaborate! Sports & Entertainment, said that while the UAE’s presence in cycling was not an obvious choice when it began, it could inspire the buying behaviour of air travellers given that the UCI’s World Cycling Tour holds 31 events across 10 countries, bringing direct benefits to Emirates.

“Emirates is very much in full widescreen and in digital view to current or potential customers all around the world,” Singh said.

“With air travel now so competitive and with customers having choices to make as to carrier, then a brand’s support for a particular area of interest and its marketing activation of that sponsorship could make the difference between a potential ticket purchase and an actual purchase.”

Tourism receipts could also be boosted, Singh said. “The UAE benefits directly as a result of the world’s leading cycling teams participating in the UAE Tour, which is the first calendar event,” he said.

“With each team comes many people and this roadshow tours all of the Emirates during the competition period, with images of iconic UAE landmarks captured and distributed across the world’s media outlets, acting as a brochure to attract tourism.”

Musafir.com, an online travel agency, suggested that sporting events could augment the region’s tourism and hospitality economy by up to 30 percent.

The Middle East is becoming the world’s fastest-growing sports tourism destination, valued at an estimated $600 billion, according to the World Trade Organisation.

“Sports events act as a catalyst and can have a tremendous impact on the economy as we will see millions of fans gather to not only watch their favourite sport but also to have an unforgettable experience during their stay in the region,” said Sachin Gadoya, CEO and co-founder of Musafir.com.