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The Gulf can spearhead sustainability through football

The beautiful game is a formidable tool for increasing Arab soft power

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola could use his profile to encourage football supporters to find alternatives to their garden lawn Reuters/Carl Recine
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola could use his profile to encourage football supporters to find alternatives to their garden lawn

When the Fifa World Cup was staged in Qatar at the end of 2022, many observers asked about the irrigation needs of football pitches. Professional grounds are notoriously thirsty for high quality water.

In total, Qatar built eight stadiums and 136 training grounds. Each of these requires about 10,000 litres of fresh water per day.

This is approximately 525,000 cubic metres per year, which is sizeable for a water-scarce economy such as Qatar.

In addition, it is estimated that the World Cup last year emitted about 10 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is about 10 percent of what Qatar emitted in 2021. 

Despite high investment, Qatar benefitted impressively through the World Cup. The tournament’s colossal revenues of $9 billion far outweighed the costs.

However, the story does not, and should not, finish here.

Gulf investors have a real opportunity to use football further as an arena of change. 

GCC investors now own several of the world’s most successful soccer clubs.

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan not only owns Abu Dhabi United Group, the majority shareholder of treble champions Manchester City, he also owns teams in the US, Europe, Australia, India, Japan and China.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund has bought Newcastle United and Qatar Sports Investments is behind Paris Saint Germain – and possibly Manchester United in the near future.

Moreover, the Saudi Pro League is quickly becoming one of the world’s most attractive football divisions. 

Soft power and football

Football is a formidable tool for increasing Arab soft power.

Half of the world follows the beautiful game, especially in growth markets such as North America, Asia and Africa.

Soft power influences people around the world through appeal and affection, as opposed to hard-fought policymaking.

Policymaking can be coercive, especially in the environmental realm, as can be seen in Western countries where populism against green policies is growing.

Instead, football can reach the hearts and minds of people if the right messages are conveyed in the right way. 

There is also much confusion about good environmental practices. It is therefore important to be transparent. 

For example, consider football’s colossal water use. The point is that the water applied to football pitches to play the game is relatively insignificant. What matters more is that people at home save water by making the right choices. 

One square metre of lawn in Dubai requires 15 litres of potable water per day with low levels of salinity in the summer and 12 litres during the cooler months.

Artificial grass, which can be made from recycled plastics or rubber, looks just as good but does not need much water except for cleaning. 

Football clubs in the English Premier League similarly have a very high water use of about 10,000 cubic metres per pitch.

Newcastle United fans are renowned for their passion and allegiance - clubs should use this power to make positive changeReuters/David Klein
Newcastle United fans are renowned for their passion and allegiance – clubs should use this power to make positive change

Most English teams host about 15 pitches, including those at training grounds, which is the equivalent of 30 hectares. This is the amount of land farmed by the average English smallhold farmer.

Yet instead of putting football clubs on the spot, they themselves should work with their supporters to make different choices.

Manchester City alone have a global supporter base of around 500 million people. If these supporters were to stop watering their lawns, a very substantial amount of water can be saved.

Similarly, if football asks its supporters to reduce single use plastics, many ecosystems around the world will benefit.

A study in the journal Energy Research and Social Science suggests that household behaviour is responsible for 72 percent of global carbon emissions. This is why climate scientists increasingly turn to trying to change behaviours to tackle the climate crisis because it has to be fought at home by billions of households around the world. 

Footballers and football clubs are ideally equipped to influence behavioural change. They can urge supporters to replace their natural lawns with artificial alternatives and ask them to cut food waste, use public transport and abandon single-use plastics. 

Later this year, the UAE will host Cop28. More than ever, progress needs to be made to address climate change.

If the hosts utilise football celebrities on their payroll such as Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, Jack Grealish, Ilkay Gündogan or Pep Guardiola to act as global environmental ambassadors, the Cop meeting will reach far more people through soft power than any conference calling for more action. 

Gulf Arab investors have a powerful tool at their disposal. Using it wisely for the benefit of a world battling the impact of climate change would be an innovative and creative approach to induce positive behavioural change in both industrialised and developing countries.

They should have their football heroes change the world to head off humanity’s biggest crisis so far. 

Martin Keulertz is adjunct assistant professor at the American University of Beirut and a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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