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Game on: Qatar and Saudi Arabia ‘have money to play’ in world of sports

While Qatar has hosted to the biggest tournament in the sporting world, the post-World Cup era has witnessed Saudi Arabia rise in athlete signings, disrupting the once-monopoly of European states.

Saudi Arabia has been in the headlines all year, but this time for its unprecedented investments in international sports, specifically in the game of football. 

The country’s surprising and assertive moves that have disrupted the footballing world were not expected to say the least, including the successful luring of five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. 

While Saudi Arabia went to tackle football’s greatest talents like Neymar Jr., Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Ruben Neves, and so on, its neighbour, Qatar, has approached the steps to become a global powerhouse in sports much differently. 

A premeditated ambition 

Sports has become a key battleground for Qatar, one that it has continuously won through the hosting of several worldwide sports competitions, including the 2006 Asian Games, the 2011 Asian Football Cup, the annual Qatar Open Tennis Tournament, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

However, Qatar’s ambition to raise its global profile in the world of sports has been in the works for decades.

In 1993, a New York Times article described Qatar’s mindset at the time as the “sports capital of West Asia.”

The article would quote Sheikh Saud bin Ali Al-Thani, who at the time was secretary general of the National Olympic Committee, saying,“This is the policy of the government, our way of making Qatar more known around the world.”

Al-Thani has recently become the FIBA’s (the International Basketball Federation) newly elected president. 

Prior to 2000, the Gulf state built six football stadiums as well as the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash complex, which would go on to host the ATP tournament every year.

The New York Times article also mentioned Qatar’s ambition to host a Formula One (F1) venue, similar to that of today’s Lusail Circuit, which is set to host a 10-year deal of F1 from 2023. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia appeared to be more concerned with regional political events to be focused on sports.

Claudia Kozman, an Assistant Professor in Residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, confirmed the premeditated ambition of the Qataris compared to the later start by the Saudis.

“I can’t comment on when Saudi Arabia started thinking about sports, but I do know that Qatar got involved a long time ago,” Kozman told Doha News.

A former sports journalist, Kozman, described her personal experience with Qatar, saying, “I believe the Asian Games in 2006 were one of the country’s first attempts at hosting sports competitions at a regional level. In fact, I came to Doha to cover the games as part of a news service.”

“I recall the city had a few tall buildings. Even the journalists’ hotel, where we were stationed, was a makeshift hotel that was to be torn after the games. If I remember correctly, either our hotel or the media centre was within a walking distance from City Center (the mall). Now I can’t even recognise the area. So much has changed,” she added.

When asked about the difference in Qatar’s approach from the Saudis, Kozman voiced that the country is concentrating on “mega events and other smaller scale competitions,” unlike Saudi, which is fixated on the prestige of athletes.

“For Qatar, investments in sports are mostly focused on hosting both mega events and other smaller scale competitions, such as the FIFA World Cup and the Asian Cup in football, an ATP Tour event in tennis, and the Qatar Grand Prix in F1,” the Assistant Professor told Doha News.

“Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, seems to be investing more in individuals (mainly athletes) to attract audiences. Investing in sports teams, which both countries have done, is a mix of the two approaches but leans heavily toward the individual type of investment than an entire mega event.”

Ramping up investment

Craig LaMay, Professor and Director of the Journalism and Strategic communications programme at Northwestern University in Qatar, points out that the Saudi ambition to develop its sporting resume was devised as an economic diversification tool.

“Seven years ago, scholars who looked at the rise of Gulf states in international sport all noted that KSA was the missing actor and the one with the greatest ability to change that market,” LaMay told Doha News.

“What a turnaraound since. Now KSA is in the game, and while some of its investments overseas (e.g. Newcastle) are similar to those made by Qatar and the UAE, there seem to be some obvious differences,” he added.

The director highlighted that the Saudi ambition to make the country an attractive destination for sports is not only done through the “buying of best players at top prices” but also through the government’s ability to “disrupt existing sports structures and relationships.”

“The second difference is KSA’s willingness to disrupt existing sports structures and relationships. LIV Golf has succeeded in forcing the US-based Professional Golf Association to the table for a merger. The US Congress is scheduled to investigate LIV Golf in anti-trust hearings next month. KSA and Qatar have both reportedly considered buying Formula 1 outright. The other sport to watch is boxing, where the IOC has given up on the mostly Russian-run IBA in favour of a new governing body, World Boxing,” LaMay told Doha News.

“Expect more, not less,” the professor said, on anticipating Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s drives to become global powerhouses in sports.

LaMay further pointed out that the Gulf region’s ability to afford such tournaments and superstar players makes it next in-line to dominate global sports.

“I think Western sports institutions – the IOC and FIFA – have for years been going where the money is, and that has been states like Russia and China, Qatar and KSA. That is not to say these states are all the same, except in the sense that in each, the decision to host these competitions is ultimately up to one person,” he noted.

“Russia and China, for different reasons, are unlikely to host major international sports competitions in the near future, and the Gulf states are willing to pay for them. So expect more, not less. Increased revenues from oil and gas revenues, partly the result of the war in Ukraine, will pay for them,” LaMay added.

Slow, but steady wins the race

Qatar is now eyeing a purchase of Manchester United, a far more prominent and prestigious club than the country’s first investment in France’s Paris Saint-Germain, which was acquired by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011.

The purchasing of Manchester United signals that Qatar’s ongoing vision to be a global sports powerhouse is far from over, and that the rivalry with its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, is far from done.

In less than a year, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund, the Public Investment Fund, has done the impossible to become the next capital of the football industry.

Through its purchase of world-class players, it has managed to become the next host for the FIFA Club World Cup football tournament and has solidified its path to the 2026 World Cup host.

The success of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup has fueled the ambition within both countries and opened doors to a new world order in the realm of sports.

The very nature of sports is being changed by digital disruption and private-equity investments worldwide, within which the two Gulf countries have raised their stakes.

“It’s a wide-open table, and the Gulf states have the money to play,” LaMay told Doha News.