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Why the Gulf should bid for the 2035 Rugby World Cup

For the region and for the future of the sport, a Gulf Rugby World Cup makes perfect sense

South Africa take on New Zealand during a Sevens World Rugby Dubai Series match. The event attracts 100,000 fans over three days Reuters/Satish Kumar
South Africa take on New Zealand during a Sevens World Rugby Dubai Series match. The event attracts 100,000 fans over three days

After the winning nation of the 2023 Rugby World Cup lifts the trophy at the Stade de France this weekend, rugby fans, pundits and the media will look back on its highlights and inevitably ask: which nation will bid for the 2035 World Cup? 

I was surprised to see that none of the major countries in the Middle East are offering a bid. I think this is a missed opportunity – not only for the region but also rugby’s future. 

The Fifa Football World Cup has chosen a new host nation for every tournament over the last 48 years, expanding the sport’s global presence in the process.

World Rugby, the organisation behind the Rugby World Cup, has failed to adopt a similar tactic. Instead, previous host Australia has been selected to stage the tournament in 2027.

The frontrunners for the 2035 World Cup are England, Italy, New Zealand and Japan. The East Asian nation previously hosted the competition in 2019, and taking the competition away from established rugby nations was exactly the reboot that the sport needed. 

The tournament was hugely successful. Its organisers sold 99 percent of its tickets and shattered domestic broadcast records. Rugby was, for the first time in years, expanding. 

The World Cup boosted Japan’s economy too. It achieved the highest economic impact in Rugby World Cup history, increasing Japan’s GDP by $2.93 billion. 

Japan would do an excellent job of hosting the competition again – but I think the secret to its success was that it was an entirely new host nation with a blank canvas for growth. What is Japan’s contemporary, then? I believe it is a Middle Eastern nation such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. 

The region has the financial backing, infrastructure and willingness to embrace entirely new sports competitions. Having hosted the 2022 Fifa football World Cup, Qatar could repurpose any of its eight stadiums built for the competition, while countries such as Saudi Arabia have the resources to construct new ones entirely. And could you imagine a Rugby World Cup in Saudi’s new Qiddiya megaproject?  

And it’s not just the Middle East that will benefit; it would be beneficial for rugby, too. A recent report by Nielsen calls for Rugby Union to take advantage of more commercial opportunities.

In fact, English Premiership Rugby — one of the most competitive rugby leagues in the world — is facing financial instability. Evidently, the sport is struggling and desperately requires a revamp. 

I’ve witnessed dramatic transformations across multiple sports in recent years, in golf, F1 and padel tennis, for which the Middle East has committed over $6.3 billion. A Rugby World Cup in the Middle East could also be a springboard for the sport. 

The sport has vast potential for growth. In fact, the sevens rugby format is already firmly embedded in the UAE sporting calendar. The Dubai Sevens is one of the city’s largest annual events, attracting more than 100,000 visitors over three days.

The tourism opportunities of Dubai play a leading role in its success, and would be a massive draw for travelling fans for a Rugby World Cup. Further still, the Middle East’s relatively central geographical location is a good middle-ground for fans in major rugby regions such as New Zealand, Europe and South Africa.

Japan 2019 should have been a turning point for the sport – now it’s time for the Middle East to emulate its success, and once again capture the interest of rugby enthusiasts and entirely new audiences alike.  

However, if Middle Eastern nations want to capitalise on the tournament, they must place their bids soon. Although the competition is 12 years away, it took 12 years for Qatar to build its stadiums for the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

I can’t see preparations for the Rugby World Cup taking as long, but delivering sports infrastructure projects requires early planning. Host nations must start talks with key stakeholders, contractors and World Rugby as soon as possible. 

Just as Japan held the very first Rugby World Cup in Asia, the 2035 competition could be the first in the Middle East. It would attract existing fans to a new tourist destination while introducing the sport to entirely new audiences. 

But most importantly, it’s a chance for the sport to turn around its fortunes, and avoid settling for another World Cup in well-worn territory.

Alexey Milovanov is known for his work at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. He was in charge from the FIFA/Q22 side to oversee the delivery of temporary event infrastructure for eight stadiums

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