The Qatar World Cup has come and gone, but the debate continues
The 2022 Qatar World Cup has come and gone. Most fans will remember the exhilarating matches and the dramatic final. They will recall the emergence of Morocco as the tournament’s darling. For some, the politics will stick in their mind: expressions of support for the Palestinians, struggles over support for LGBTQ rights, and the unprecedented more than a decade-long campaign by human rights groups and trade unions to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers.
The tournament may be history but the often-fierce debate about Qatar is not. To be sure, the debate has moved on. It focusses on lessons learnt from a country that at least when it came to workers rights was willing to engage. Those lessons are particularly relevant with countries like Saudi Arabia set to host a slew of tournaments over the next decade and bidding for many more.
The bids include an effort, together with Egypt and Greece, to win the hosting rights for the 2030 World Cup. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s worst violators of human rights, are, in contrast to Qatar, unlikely to recognise their critics, let alone engage with them.
Gulf states’ forays into sports are not limited to hosting. They involve the acquisition of high-profile clubs like Manchester City, Paris St. Germain, and Newcastle United, and now perhaps even Manchester United as well as celebrity players like Neymar and Ronaldo. The forays also involve attempts to control whole sport discipline with Saudi Arabia’s creation of an alternative golf tournament and effort to Saudi to set up world’s richest cricket competition while Qatar has invested in the International Padel Federation to create new global tour.
The Qatari World Cup experience may well embolden the kingdom in maintaining a hard line. Criticism of Qatar was relentless in the 12-year walkup to the 2022 World Cup.
Yet, the Gulf emerged from the successful hosting of the tournament with its reputation enhanced rather than tarnished. Similarly, perceptions of the debate about Qatar that was as much about legitimate rights issues as it was skewed by prejudice, bias, sour grapes, and a Western-centric focus, is likely to reinforce Saudi reluctance to engage.
To discuss these issues, I am joined today by Karim Zidan, an acclaimed Egyptian Canadian journalist, short story writer, and translator. Karim’s coverage of sports and politics is published by major publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Foreign Policy. Karim also has his own column, Sports Politika, on Substack, which I wholeheartedly endorse. You can subscribe to Karim’s column at karimzidan.substack.com.
Karim, welcome to the show
Karim Zidan (03:37):
Thank you very much, James. It’s, that was a really fantastic introduction and very kind of you to say as someone who’s been reading your work for years and years now. It’s a real pleasure to be here.
James M. Dorsey (03:48):
Thank you. It’s really a pleasure to have you. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get straight to it.
Before we get into the lessons learned, let’s focus for a minute on why autocracies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt want to host mega sporting events. Critics, by and large, think it’s about improving images tarnished by the abuse of human and other rights. The critics seem to suggest that it’s primarily about what they initially termed reputation laundry and now call sports washing. It strikes me that the issue of reputation is about much more, it’s about positioning on the international stage. It’s an understanding that soft power matters. That diplomacy today is far broader than government to government contacts. It involves cultural and public diplomacy, and people-to people-diplomacy, and it’s about economics, attracting foreign investment and foreign talent. And, of course, last but not least, about domestic human development and social cohesion. You’ve given the issue of reputation a lot of thought. I’d love to hear your take.
Karim Zidan (05:03):
So, I think James, when it comes to the term sportswashing, I think it’s a troubled term in many ways simply because we’ve limited our understanding of sportswashing to the concept of reputation laundering, and therefore I find that the term is really limited. I try to use it as little as possible. Let’s just take Saudi Arabia as an example here for context. Saudi Arabia is not simply doing this as an attempt to launder reputation, though that might be one of the factors. It is also the most basic and shallowest analysis of what Saudi Arabia is doing because as you said, this really is a multi-pronged effort by the kingdom. There are elements of soft power, there are elements of prestige, there are elements of diplomacy, there are enhancements of tourism, and other economic factors at play, general development and divestment from oil and its dependence on oil.
All these are legitimate elements of this concept of sportswashing on top of more issues with regards to tourism. Even the simple concept of social improvements such as getting Saudis to actually get up and move, be more concerned about their health. That at the end of the day is concern for the future of the country, which benefits the economy of the country. So, it’s a perpetual cycle. It’s ongoing when it comes to Saudi Arabia, it’s not simply about just reputation laundering At this point, I think they received so much backlash that reputation laundering really isn’t much of an element anymore. If anything, I believe that they would use brute force to get their way through sports anyways, whether it was a benefit or not to their reputation. Think of elements such as the LIV Golf fiasco that’s ongoing in the United States right now where Saudi Arabia actually invested and created its own rival to the PGA Golf tour.
Well, that isn’t simply Saudi Arabia, as people think, all just about hosting sports events, but they actually see themselves as capable of challenging traditional and longstanding US sports leagues. I mean, that’s how confident they are in their abilities at this moment. So, I’d say that there’s a lot of context required depending on the country that we’re talking about. And for example, with Saudi Arabia, we’re seeing that this is a very complex, multi-pronged effort. Take tourism. We underestimate just how important the concept of tourism is to them. They are really trying to present themselves as a global hub, not just for sports, not just for entertainment, but for just general travel as well. Saudi Arabia, for those who really don’t know or haven’t really followed the country before, it really came to the forefront under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia wasn’t a country that just welcomed people very openly. I know this very well, James, but this whole idea that you could just get a tourist visa and go to Saudi wasn’t truly an option unless you had a work visa. You weren’t really going to be visiting Saudi Arabia very often, and if you were, there wasn’t truly much to do. So, the country has changed dramatically, and they’re bringing in players like Christian Ronaldo, like Lionel Messi. I mean, very few people are even talking about how they’re utilising these players. I mean, Lionel Messi literally has a tourism contract with the general tourism authority. That’s how valuable they see this football player, not just as a sports asset to them, but as a tool for promoting tourism overall. S,o there’s a lot to this, I think, and I think people need to start analysing this as something far beyond simple reputation laundering.
James M. Dorsey (08:50):
Well, I think that’s absolutely correct. The tourism aspect is really important. I think there are two other things also. What probably many people don’t realise, and you noted, the health aspects of Saudi sports policy and sports policy. What people don’t really often realise is that the Gulf states have among the highest rates of obesity and of diabetes in the world, and so they have a real healthcare crisis, which they’re trying to address through sports and trying to get people to engage in sports. There’s also one other point, which I think is important in terms of the distinction between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Saudi Arabia has and had far more of a reputation deficit. You were referring to this earlier. T really was a closed country, a country that was viewed as a secretive medieval kingdom where women were not allowed to drive.
All of that changed, of course, under the Salman’s, but it’s also a country that has serious human rights issues. Just think back of the shakedown of the elite, including members of the ruling family when they were imprisoned in the Ritz Carlton in 2017 or the killing in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This brings me back to the human rights and trade union campaign, which was successful in Qatar in improving the working and living conditions of workers. Sure, implementation remains the problem, but Qatar has implementation issues across the board. It strikes me, however, that the improvements widened the gap of distrust between the Qataris, and maybe the Gulf in general, and particularly the human rights groups. Part of that I think is Qatar not always putting the best foot forward during the campaign. There were multiple things they could have done at little cost or proactively, but to me that doesn’t really explain what went wrong in terms of the human rights campaign. What are your views on this?
Karim Zidan (11:22):
I think Qatar was in an impossibly difficult situation from the time that its bid was successful. It is a much smaller nation in the Gulf. It’s position in the Gulf was a lot more tenuous than say Saudi Arabia’s was, or the United Arab Emirates, which were far more established, and even in terms of public relations, better known around the world. Qatar also had a troubled position geopolitically in the region, making it much more willing to engage with human rights activists and human rights organisations from early stages onwards. Whether, as you mentioned, they never really put their best foot forward for the vast majority, but they certainly did far better than other countries have. I mean, you will not see the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia or many others, Bahrain included, engage with human rights organisations the way that Qatar did.
But I think Qatar was in a position where it absolutely needed to. The end result that has occurred from Qatar hosting the World Cup is that it has now had its own coming out party. It’s now emerged into the sphere. This is a significant amount of prestige for a country that just a few short years ago was embargoed and blocked by its own neighbours in the region. It was having quite a significant amount of geopolitical strife. All that sort of seems to have fallen by the wayside, and they all seem to be slowly regaining diplomatic footing together again. And that’s in large part due to QAR being able to host the World Cup. I mean, Saudi Arabia wanted a piece of the action, and so did Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They were all hosting flights. They all saw economic value from hosting the World Cup. Meanwhile, Qatar was trying to balance being able to have a somewhat decent PR image in Western world by just getting to that final stage of actually hosting the World Cup, while at the same time trying not to lose face in front of its allies and neighbours in the Gulf.
It’s a difficult position cause Qatar also hosts part of the US fleet in the Middle East. So, I think as a country overall, it’s had a very complicated little process, which is why it doesn’t surprise me at all that the human rights campaign failed to present Qatar as the successful venture overall when it comes to World Cup. I think it’s a complicated situation.
James M. Dorsey (14:06):
I think it’s worth mentioning indeed there was in the final walkup to the 2022 World Cup an effort by neighbouring states, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, to get a piece of the pie. But that really came late in the game. Up until then, particularly the UAE, was actually keen on trying to rest the World Cup from Qatar or at least get co-hosting of the World Cup. And you saw an enormous covert campaign that went on for years. But coming back to the human rights campaign and where the campaign failed, it strikes me that there are basically three issues. One issue was a sense of lack of sensitivity, if you wish, and understanding what is possible and what is not possible.
My sense is that a majority of Qataris, provided their concerns were addressed, did not have real problems with reforming the labour regime or the regime that governs migrant workers. That was very different when it came to LGBTQ rights, and I don’t know that the human rights groups, the LGBTQ groups, really understood what that difference was. I think the second issue we saw was that the debate, in a sense, divided into two areas, a debate about legitimate issues including LGBTQ, including human rights, including migrant workers’ rights, but also we saw this outpouring of, I’d say almost Islamophobic prejudice against Qatar. Those who were in the camp of the critics of Qatar, certainly the human rights groups and others didn’t draw a distinction between what they were saying and what others who were more politically motivated were saying. I think the third point is the issue of media coverage, which both involve accuracy as well as bias. And I know these are things you’ve given some thought to also.
Karim Zidan (16:34):
Oh, absolutely. I mean, just to take each one at a time, there were absolutely some extremely fair issues that needed to be covered. I mean, migrant worker issues is something that’s not restricted just to Qatar, but is a problem across the Middle East, the Gulf region and the Arab world overall. I mean, it’s even well known as something called the kafala system, which is really a form of modern day slavery when you consider the level of exploitation involved in it, the removal of someone’s passport and the full complete control you have over these individuals and the horrific treatment. People very rarely mention a place like Lebanon or Egypt or these places where these issues continue to exist. The focus was absolutely on Qatar that was holding in a very, very big event. So, of course, it was going to get this sort of attention.
This is an issue that was not just limited to Qatar. At the very least, Qatar was attempting to take some sort of action, including judicial action, actual parliamentary changes that were incorporated to modernise their labour laws. So, that’s an improvement that’s worth recognising. Now, when it comes to LGBTQ rights, I’ve found this one to be a very difficult issue because I actually spoke to LGBTQ+ activists in the region. I have quite a few friends across the Middle East, and I spoke to all of them and not a single one of them thought that the Western campaign to promote LGBTQ rights in Qatar was an honest one, mainly because it never incorporated them. Very few of these activists even attempted to reach out to local activists to see how they felt about incorporating Western style acceptance of LGBTQ rights into Qatar.
A lot of these people don’t want the traditional coming out or getting out of the closet the way we see it in the Western world right now in places like Canada, the United States, et cetera. All these stories we see about coming out to your family, et cetera. This is not exactly how a lot of the Arab world wants to handle this. And this is what I’ve heard personally from friends of mine that they don’t see. They don’t have a sense of familiarity with how it’s handled in the Western world. And I think that lack of discussion really hurt the cause when it came to approaching LGBT rights in the discussion.
I think Western activists and western journalists don’t take into account the fact that when you’re trying to pressure a country, impose on a country that you must change your LGBT rights, you must change them now, this s not up for debate. Well, it actually can go around and backfire and hurt the locals once you leave because you are parachuting yourself into a country for a short period of time and claiming that you’ve caused change, then you leave. You never look behind to see what actually happens. And what actually happens is a lot of the locals, the people who have to live with the consequences end up suffering thereafter. That’s something the western media doesn’t really reckon with. This leads us into the other issue of Islamophobia. That’s something I did get the sense when I was reading articles, including from colleagues of mine at The Guardian, I was reading articles and thinking, you seem to have a bit more of an agenda than I’d like. And it comes to small terms. I mean, some of it actually reminded me a lot of terms that the MAGA people from Donald Trump would use, like shithole country. And I’m thinking, this is not supporting your cause in the slight this, as a matter of fact, this is a point against you. I mean, this is not difficult. Discussing authoritarianism or the issues of authoritarianism or human rights doesn’t require to descend into xenophobic comments. I mean, that’s a weakness on your end at that point. So yeah, no, there was a lot of issues that definitely led to the human rights campaign not reaching the desired results or any sort of unified results for that matter.
James M. Dorsey (20:29):
No, I think that’s absolutely true. And there’s also one other point I think that you sort of noted. It’s not just that the geographic spread, for example, the migrant workers’ rights is far broader. It’s also, this has been a long standing issue. I remember when I first visited the Gulf in 1976, I wrote an article out of Kuwait in which I described it as an apartheid regime, which was partially built on the whole issue of migrant labour, the conditions under which migrant labour was working. But also it’s also an issue that brings us to something much broader, which is the issue of perceived double standards, which leads me again, and I don’t have an answer to this, but the Qatar World Cup was the catalyst that forced FIFA to adopt a human rights policy.
The problem is that if you apply that policy, there’s no country that would qualify. Western countries may have better human rights records, but European policy towards migrants involves violations of human and refugee rights. The United States, which is hosting together with Canada and Mexico the 2026 World Cup ,is struggling with the legacy of racism and Republican backtracking on democracy. And then there is, Mexico, which has one of the world’s highest rates of killings of journalists. So, the question is how do you apply human rights to the hosting of megasporting events and can you at all really do so?
Karim Zidan (22:19):
Well, that’s a fascinating question, James, that, honestly, I continue to wrestle with to this day. Right after the World Cup. I wrote a piece for The Guardian, and it was an op-ed at the time, saying that the Qatar World Cup should be a watershed moment in sports journalism. And by that I meant that, okay, we’ve reached a point now that we have agreed almost unanimously in Western media that sports and politics do intersect. Now, I’m relying on that to also be a moment where Western journalists will say, okay, well if we’re applying this lens to Qatar, let’s now apply this to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games because we should be looking at France’s authoritarian tilt that’s going on right now with the changes to the pension system without actually passing a vote in parliament or by installing experimental AI surveillance. That’s very, very authoritarian ahead of the Olympic Games.
These are issues that we should be talking about in France, but there’s a reason why most people aren’t doing that right now, and it’s definitely concerning. But leading on from that, I think the hypocrisy is really, really significant here, James, I think we’re dealing with an issue that’s really hard to balance out. I think for instance, there’s a big debate right now about the potential boycott of the 2024 Paris Games simply because Russia and Belarus could be participating.. The International Olympic Committee is at this point trying to decide whether they will allow Russian and Belarusian athletes back in as neutrals with a lot of caveats of course. But Ukraine has come in and said, no, we demand a boycott and we will be lobbying for a boycott, and none of our national federations will be competing at any event where Russians or be Byelorussians are allowed even as neutrals.
This has led to a wide-ranging discussion saying that we should probably boycott Russia. Now, I have nothing against a symbolic gesture for Ukraine. I understand all Ukrainians right now who are literally under attack wanting Russia not to be involved in the Olympic Games. But I beg people to understand one thing, if you are going to apply a boycott to Russia, the only way this boycott can truly be legitimate is if it is applied equally to all other offending states. That means Israel’s apartheid over Palestine. Israel should be also considered for a boycott. And James, when I use these examples like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which I mean they’ve reached some sort of peace agreement now, but up until very recently, that’s another country that we could easily have boycotted. And if we’re going to count all sorts of other human rights concerns, well then that list goes on and on and continues to grow.
I tell people that if you really want to have a legitimate boycott, well then you have to apply it equally to everyone. The problem is, as you mentioned the very beginning, if you start applying it to everyone, then who’s actually left over? And that’s a tough question. That’s a tough question with no legitimate answer at this point. Some people will say, well, okay, I think we should apply it to authoritarian regimes because at least in democratic regimes it will have impact. Democratic nations have the institutions in place to be able to rally against corruption, authoritarian tendencies, et cetera. So, if that is the case, then why aren’t we focusing still on France’s issues right now? Because you can’t just focus on authoritarian countries because we’re seeing democratic institutions failing as well. So where do we draw the line?
James M. Dorsey (25:57):
You actually just touched on another point that I really wanted to make, which is that part of the problem I think we’re encountering is that the international sports federations and governments really want to keep up a fiction, they’ve created. They live in a, fictitious world in which they assert that sports and politics are separate. And in fact, as far as I’m concerned, they’re Siamese twins joined at the hip and they’re inseparable. So the real question is how do you regulate a relationship like that? Do you do that with a code of conduct? Do you do that with an independent regulator? But somehow, in fact, all of these issues that we are talking about are political, including the sports policies of the Gulf States, as well as the issues of whether or not Russian athletes should be competing under the Russian flag or whether countries like Saudi Arabia or Israel should be sanctioned because of what they’re doing to populations. The question is how do you regulate that relationship?
Karim Zidan (27:18):
That’s a difficult question and I think it’s a difficult one primarily because I don’t trust the current arbitrators, the regulators that we would have in place. I can’t trust the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or like we talked about FIFA coming up with human rights resolutions etc. Well, I mean, come on now, that is probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, the IOC and FIFA represent two absolutely legal mafias that exist in the world. I would not trust them to arbitrate or to regulate what’s for lunch the next day… We’ve already seen what it’s like when sports institutions regulate for themselves. The OIC has just decided that activism has no place at the actual Olympic Games, which has an incredible history of activism, of sports activism.
The IOC has decided, no, you know what? This is causing too much friction. Let’s ban it all entirely. So, it’s clear to me that they are not working out of anything other than self-interest. And as long as they’re working out of self-interest, there’s going to continuously be corruption. And these regulations will only be applied with political and other agendas in general. So ,if I don’t trust them to be regulators, and when we talk about independent regulators, who could those be? That’s the real question because we are dealing with organisations that are far too big in size. They are far too big. Their lobbying efforts are far too great and significant, and their financial capabilities are even more exceptional than that. And they’ve teamed up with authoritarian regimes for a reason, because they know when it comes to building and expanding upon these large stadiums like the IOC loves to do, FIFA loves to do when it goes to new countries, the easiest place that you can pass those ideas and actually build without dealing with any form of bureaucracy is under authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Those are the ones who can pass any new laws without having to deal with their own populations. The IOCand FIFA absolutely love that. And if they love dealing with autocrats, I don’t trust them to regulate anything.
James M. Dorsey (29:31):
That’s absolutely true. That’s why you’ve actually seen over the last decade a number of Western countries withdrawing from bids because there was actually popular resistance to spending that kind of money. And you see it in the Saudi-Egyptian-Greek World Cup bid where the Saudis essentially are going to fund all the expenses that Greece and Egypt would have to go to be able to host the tournament, but then get the right to host the 75% of the matches. But all of this brings us also to, I think, another issue or two other issues. One one of the ways of pressuring international sports associations would be if you act greater fan pressure and to the degree that you have fan pressure, it’s coming from the West and it’s really come coming from a minority of Western fans..
I think if you look at the Qatar World Cup, it was economics, the cost of getting to Qatar and attending matches, and the difficulty of getting into the country. You had to get a Haya card and so on and so forth. It was more those issues that stymied to a degree Western fans from attending the World Cup in Qatar, even though there were many who did come. It wasn’t issues of labour, it wasn’t issues of human rights. And so, there’s in a sense, in my mind, a lack of pressure from the bottom up. And it’s even more so when it comes to the Global South and Central and Eastern Europe, with other words from non-Western countries. There’s even less of an interest in trying to have an international sports governance that’s more fit for purpose.
Karim Zidan (31:46):
When it comes to fandom, I think it’s a really interesting one. I think based on my experience covering intersection of sports and politics for a living in a variety of sports where the vast majority of fans really care mostly for escapism, it’s been a really difficult sell and it does take, as you mentioned, a specific type of minority who can really back it or be interested in it. And it’s usually people who have an interest in politics to begin with or economics or the business side of things, or they happen to be from a minority group themselves and understand what it’s like to come from the less privileged elements of society. But if you’re not dealing with that, for the vast majority, you’re dealing with a fan based that really is looking for escapism from reality. And when you start to take the escapism away from them the way Americans felt when Colin Kaepernick at the NFL games, how dare he mentioned racism and police brutality during our favourite sports, that’s exactly how they felt at the time.
And this continues to happen. This really continues to happen in Qatar, it was how dare they want to wear arm bands that signal one love, that everybody can love whoever they want. How dare they do that?. So, this is a complaint that happens across sports. I deal with it a lot. In particular in combat sports, it’s writing about mixed martial arts or the UFC or boxing. Those rooms are quite conservative and unless you’re, you’re talking points are conservative, talking points are right-wing leaning or in love with Donald Trump, they are not quite interested in what you have to say. They don’t want to hear about racial tension or racial issues in the United States. They don’t want to hear about police brutality or gun violence or any of those issues domestically in the United States right now. There is a topic of discussion in the United Kingdom, James, about an environmental and climate activists and animal rights activists disturbing and disrupting sports events taking place across the country and how it’s just driving the UK sports establishment and sports stands absolutely crazy right now.
A man just jumped onto a snooper table during the first round match at a world snooper championship snooker of all things and just emptied a packet of orange dust across the table. And this was supposed to be a big political statement about the impending climate crisis that we’re dealing with. And people were like, well, why snooker? What’s it about snooker? So, it was a bit of an odd protest at the time, but it goes show you that people are just mad. They don’t want to see this thing that they’re watching as a form of escapism, be interrupted in any way, shape, or form, no matter how righteous or valuable or important the topic of conversation actually is. S,o it’s really hard to reach most fans, and I think that’s really even more insidious when you think about why authoritarian regimes like to utilise sports.
It is actually really easy because most fans simply want to engage with the sport at a sports level. It is really easy to pass along subliminal messaging to these fans by simply just owning these things. I think about Saudi Arabia taking ownership of New Castle United and how that’s just won them a legion of fans around the world simply for taking ownership of a club that people love so much, have watched for years struggle along while other clubs were richer, more powerful and have more influence. Now, Newcastle United has the opportunity to stand alongside those clubs, is doing quite well for itself in the Premier League standings, and that makes them happy. A lot of these people just see this as a reason to love Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. So, the propaganda is actually quite simple when you think about it because fans aren’t A, that smart for the most part, and B, don’t really want to be engaged in anything other than the sports.
James M. Dorsey (35:40):
I’d probably argue that it’s the second point. They don’t want to be engaged rather than they by definition may not be that smart.
Karim Zidan (35:49):
You can tell I’m a bit jaded unfortunately.
James M. Dorsey (35:53):
But I think what you described with Newcastle United, it’s the same thing as what happened with Manchester City when it was bought by the UAE or with Paris St.Germaine when it was bought by Qatar. Which brings me to another point, which I’ve argued before, but I think is interesting and important And that is Gulf countries or Gulf nationals buying sports clubs, particularly in Europe, has really been a mixed experience and it’s almost always failed when it was an in individual doing it for reasons of vanity and it’s almost always succeeded when it was the state in some form or other, whether that was in the case of Qatar a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, its sovereign wealth fund, or whether it was in the case of Newcastle United the Saudi sovereign wealth fund or in the case of Manchester City where it was the man who is the half-brother of the UAE president and the deputy prime minister. I think one has to realise that it is certain Gulf investors that are truly sugar daddies, if you would, and help clubs for good or for bad become top or remain top performers, whereas it’s not the Gulf or Gulf nationals by definition.
Karim Zidan (37:48):
Absolutely. I think that’s a point that can stand on a wider front. I think this is a point that just generally stands for any of the discussions we’re having. I think when we talk about the intersection of sports, of politics or how old these things intersect, we are at the end of the day talking about the governments, the regimes, rather than the individuals themselves. Because in a lot of these countries, like the one I come from, Egypt, for instance, you don’t actually get a say in what your government’s doing. So, I feel for every one of these countries, some people are going to be very supportive of their governments while others are not going to be. So, I never speak for the nationals, I never speak for individuals themselves. It’s always speaking for the actions of the government, and I think that’s a good point. That’s a good thing to point out always.
James M. Dorsey (38:30):
Absolutely. And in the case of Egypt, this you know far better than I, if you look at Saudi sports policy since Mohamed bin Salman came to office, the first several years of his sports policy were a train wreck.
Karim Zidan (38:48):
Oh, my goodness, my goodness. They even attempted to buy a team in the Egyptian Premier League called Pyramids FC. The whole thing was just a joke really. Yeah, (the Saudi sports czar) Turki al-Sheikh has quite the reputation in Egypt.
James M. Dorsey (39:03):
And they also had an experience with Al Ahli, of course, one of Egypt’s top clubs. But what does it tell you about in terms of evolution of Saudi sports policy?
Karim Zidan (39:17):
I think they are in the process of not just trial and error, but I think they’re learning from each experience. I think we’re dealing with a very, very ambitious government that is evolving rapidly and really taking each lesson it learns. I can just imagine it’ll take absolutely everything it can learn from this LIV Golf experience, no matter what the end result is, whether it ends up being a legitimate rival to the PGA tour, which at this point looks very unlikely with each passing month, or if it’s a massive failure. They have to just take whatever’s left of their investment and run with it,. You bet that they’re going to learn from that before they ever attempt to buy anything within the United States again, and they will learn and they will improve upon each time because that’s what they’re capable of right now. They have the resources, influence, and finances to be able to do so.
I see them as a legitimate threat, not a country to be taken lightly, not a country to be considered a side issue that one can deal with later. US foreign policy likes to deal with a lot of its allies that way it seems to think that, oh, we’ll get them under control at some point. I don’t think Saudi Arabia is the kind of country where you want to do that anymore, based on just the development of their investments in sports from I want to host an event, let’s just host a WWE event, to slowly working their way towards potentially buying the World Wrestling Entertainment, to now slowly investing not just in Western events, but as you mentioned, events in Asia It shows the expansion of their interests, of their intentions, of their geopolitical goals. I think it’s all very, very fascinating and I truly believe that when we talk within the world of sports and in politics, that Saudi Arabia is one of the most significant factors, looming factors that we can discuss at all.
James M. Dorsey (41:20):
I think that’s absolutely true, and there are two aspects of Asia, which I want to come back to. One is, and in fact, that may be motivated by what you were describing as the Saudis may take their time before they take a second sports initiative in the United States, which may very well be why they’re looking at the Cricket Federation and looking at sponsoring or setting up the richest cricket tournament in the world. And cricket really is an Asian sport, and a British sport of course, but very much an Asian sport. There’s a second aspect of Asia, which goes back to the fans issue, and that is that if you look at what Saudi Arabia is doing over the next decade, it’s almost for 90% major Asian tournaments, the World Cup being an exception. And yet what you’re seeing in terms of campaigns by human rights groups, for example, is that Asian events are being ignored. Yet, in many ways it’s Asia where it’s happening.
Karim Zidan (42:40):
It’s really interesting is and it goes to show you just how western-centric a lots of the reporting is, and not just the reporting, but the view of the world. If it’s not happening in Europe or in North America, then it isn’t worth considering when that’s absolutely false. It’s that sorts of arrogant thinking that has cost the United States a lot of its foreign policy over the last years and applies all across Europe. To be honest, I don’t think they realise just how significant what’s happening across the world actually is. Saudi Arabia has also made significant investments in eSports, but everybody only seems to be talking about their eSports and gaming investments when it comes to a big Western brand, but when they’re making massive billion investments in China, nobody’s talking about that yet. I find that to be far more significant because it highlights this growing China and Saudi Arabia relationship, which I mean is extremely significant on a world stage. Now for those who don’t know, I mean, we just witnessed China help broker a historic deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, one that the United States had absolutely nothing to do with.
So, we can see sports as quite symbolic here. What’s happening in the world of sports is also happening at large elsewhere right now on a global stage in general. Saudi Arabia is emerging from its conservative past and taking much more control on the global stage and its main target now, much like the United Arab Emirates, is Asia, and that makes a lot of sense. They have some of the biggest Muslim populations in the world in Asia, including in India, So targeting cricket makes a lot of sense for that reason as well. When you’re talking about building fan bases around the world, the hardest ones that they were always going to convince were Western audiences for issues of xenophobia, for massive differences in their understanding of thef global politics of democracy…. The steepest uphill battle was always going to be bringing Western audiences onto their side.
I think it’s going to be a lot less difficult to convince audiences in the East, let’s say for reasons of similarities in culture, similarities in ideals, similarities in religion. I also think we noticed that a bit at the Qatar World Cup. We talk about how difficult it was for some western countries like Europeans say, and North Americans to attend the Qatar World Cup mainly cause of distance because of the various different loopholes you had to go through. I would argue that those are less loopholes than what Arabs and a lot of people around the world go through to get into Europe and North America. Unless you have a really strong passport, you have to get a Schengen visa. Anybody who has gone through the Schengen process knows ut’s horrible, it absolutely is. Getting a visa into Canada or the United States is extremely difficult.
It’s only gotten more difficult since Covid. There’s a lot of people around the world who couldn’t attend the World Cup, even if they had the money to simply because of the passport of where they were born. So Qatar in many ways was actually an equalising factor when it comes to how we host the World Cup and who’s allowed to attend the World Cup. Qatar gained a lot of fans from its attendees in the Middle East and in that region of the world, there were a lot more Moroccans, who were able to go appreciate Morocco’s success of the World Cup than they ever would’ve been if this was 2026 and it was being hosted in Canada, the US and Mexico because they would’ve needed those visas. Canada doesn’t hand out visas left, right and centre. It really, really doesn’t. Same thing for the United States, same thing across Europe. It’s only getting more difficult and as you know, economic issues continue to take place. Political issues take place and across Africa and across the Middle East, those visa issues aren’t going to get any easier. Crossing borders are going to get more difficult. So, in many ways, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are targeting a region of the world that makes sense for them right now.
James M. Dorsey (46:49):
I think that is absolutely true, and I also think that was one of the miscalculations that we saw in terms of dealing with Qatar in the walkup to the World Cup. There was very little recognition that this was going to be a very different demography of fandom in part because it was the first time in the Muslim world, was the first time in the Middle East, and it was in the country that’s at the crossroads, if you wish, of the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Therefore, you were going to get a very different demography, which meant also that the pressure points for the Qataris were very different than they would’ve been for a European or Latin American country… We’ve talked a lot about the Saudis and why they’re doing things, but what we’re really seeing also particularly with the UAE, but also with Qatar, that it’s a competition between the Gulf states and it’s a rivalry that goes far beyond sports.
Sports is one facet of that with Saudi Arabia obviously being the behemoth in the region and the largest country also wanting to be the wherewithal for everything, the hub for everything, and trying to in fact replace in many ways what the UAE is today. And it seems to me that part of that sports strategy is part of that broader strategy and ambition on the part of the kingdom.
Karim Zidan (48:49):
Oh, absolutely. We cannot talk about Saudi’s overall sports ambition without talking about its regional rivalries. Absolutely, and its biggest regional rival is the United Arab Emirates, the country that has also has its own history of let’s not only use sportswashing, but involve sports diplomacy, soft power used in sports. I mean, they’re very well known for their love of horse racing. I’ve always found the UAE interesting when it comes to the world of combat sports, I like to think about combat sports a lot because there’s something about combat sports and autocrats. They seem to always connect together like glue. They really, really do. There’s something about these dictators and they just love that machismo of connecting themselves with combat sports and it’s no different in Saudi and the United Arab Emirates, believe it or not, the UAE first, it’s from one of its first examples of sports washing that I can think of is its attachment to Brazilian jiujitsu.
Now it hosts one of the biggest, if not the biggest Brazilian Jiujitsu event in the world, the BJJ event, the richest prize in jujitsu, the most prestigious event. It is hosted in the United Arab Emirates, in Abu Dhabi in particular, which is sort of the combat sports hub of the UAE. Now they also host in Abu Dhabi regular UFC events, and at one point during the pandemic, they actually quarantined the specific portion of Yas Island, turned it into a place called Flight Island. And the UFC was just regularly hosting events there during the pandemic. So, the UAE sort of built itself, especially Abu Dhabi, as this sort of fight hub, while Saudi Arabia on the other hand said, no, no, no, you don’t get to just be the only fighting hub and decided they’re going to host the biggest boxing events that they could get a hold of.
And they did. I mean, Oleksandr Oleksandrovych Usyk, like the Ukrainian heavyweight champion, got to compete there, Anthony Joshua got to compete there multiple times. We’ve seen several of the biggest boxing showdowns take place in Saudi Arabia. So ,even on a combat sports level, let alone a general sports level, we’re seeing a geopolitical rivalry in action. And this only expands and gets greater as we talk about sports. Then we go into the world of entertainment because it’s very clear that we’re seeing sort of an entertainment battle going on as well. Who could host the biggest festivals, the biggest expose, the most entertainment? Who can turn their tourism hubs into the fanciest, most Instagram- influencer friendly location? And we’re seeing that happen. It used to be Dubai, we used to think of Dubai as this influencer friendly result. Now people are taking pictures at and online in Al-Ulla and all these different places out in the desert in Saudi Arabia.
So, that rivalry is expanding beyond sports. Sports, is just one facet of this continued rivalry between these countries. I’m very interested to see where Qatar continues to fit in because it does seem that Qatar has at this point played its hand. I mean, it has the stadiums now. It can continue to host events, but it doesn’t get bigger than the World Cup does, it really doesn’t. So that Qatar is now going to take a step back in the world of sports and maybe focus on whatever goodwill, whatever influence it has harnessed, applying it and other and facets. That’s the way I would see it. But I’m very curious to see what happens next between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia because there’s no stopping those two countries at this point. There really isn’t.
James M. Dorsey (52:12):
Absolutely. Before we come to an end, you mentioned the relationship between autocrats and combat sports, and I want to note and give you a moment to talk about that. Iit’s not just in the Middle East, to a degree it’s in the Muslim world, interestingly enough, but probably even beyond that. Yyou just portrayed it in an article that you wrote about Chechnya.
Karim Zidan (52:47):
Oh yes. I actually made my bones writing about Chechen dictator Ramon Kadyrov, who’s a great and staunch ally of Vladimir Putin and has been at the helm of the Chechen Republic since 2007. Now he’s actually celebrating 16 years of this month. Of all the fascinating and strange and bizarre characters I’ve covered over a decade, Kadyrov remains the most absurd As much as he appears cartoonish, he’s absolutely one of the most dangerous figures I have covered. He has built a cult of personality around his father’s reputation, his reputation, and this brand of Chechen machismo and sports socialisation that has rendered him into this sort of ultra man’s man. The strong man, even though he doesn’t really look like much of a strong man, he looks like a bit of a hairy teddy bear.
Somehow, he has associated with everything from actors like Jean-Claude Van Dam and Steven Segal all the way down to a host of UFC champions over the years that he’s hosted, Floyd Mayweather and Tyson, Mike Tyson, these boxing legends, he has really rocked shoulders with all the greats when it comes to combat sports. A lot of that is to build this reputation that he’s a man’s man and by doing so, he’s also been able to rebuild Chechen identity in his preferred image. Now, if you want to be a successful Chechen man in Ramon Kadyrov’s eyes, you’re either representing him in a cage, in a fight, or you’re representing him out on the battlefield. Those are pretty much your two choices now as a Chechen man, and he was able to sort of socialise his people in less than two decades, and a big facet of that was his love for mixed martial arts and boxing.
James M. Dorsey (54:43):
He’s casting his son in the same mode.
Karim Zidan (54:46):
Absolutely, as he’s also using mixed martial arts for that to prove that he has a dynasty ready to continue. He is now showcasing his kids in MMA fights. Obviously extremely fixed fights. If anyone who’s ever watched a fight, you’ll know it’s a fixed fight instantly. They’re fixed fights. He’s presenting them as these legitimate, serious politicians. I mean, his eldest son actually had a meeting with Putin quite recently. His skilled soldiers have all been dressed up in gear with guns and have had propaganda, PR, or photo ops in occupied Ukraine. So, it’s really interesting to see the length he will go to and how much he believes in formulating this cult of personality and how these specific elements of being a soldier and being a fighter factor into it.
James M. Dorsey (55:33):
Karim, the last hour has passed in the flash. We could go on easily for at least another hour, and hopefully we will have a chance to do that again. This has been an absolutely fascinating conversation. Thank you very much for joining us. I do want to also thank the audience, our listeners and our viewers, and again, I urge you to subscribe to Kareem’s Substack column, and if you haven’t yet done so, allow me to plug you to subscribe to my column, the Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.
Take care best wishes, and please join me for my next podcast in the coming days.
Karim Zidan (56:20):
Well, thank you so much. Really, really appreciate it. It’s been wonderful.