Billions of F1 and football fans look to the Middle East

This weekend's Abu Dhabi GP and the Qatar World Cup add to the region's rich sporting legacy

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World-class sporting events tend to not overlap every year on the same weekend in the same part of the world. So for sports fans all over, especially local F1 and football enthusiasts, this weekend in the Middle East was particularly remarkable. Just as here in the UAE, fans eagerly awaited race day of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, excitement was also building an hour’s flight time from the UAE, in Qatar, as all participating teams of the football World Cup arrived in Doha.

In the words of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Qatar hosting the Fifa World Cup is a “historic milestone for all Arabs”.

Indeed, the significance of this cultural moment is one for the record books; if sports fans weren’t watching the race, they caught the football fever. It is a matter of great prestige for the Arab world – which is home to millions of fans, and nations with no small number of football clubs – that the opportunity to display their best should arise. One tremendous positive outcome of these events is the accompanying travel.

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A fan who visits one sports venue in a Gulf country is likely to fly over to a neighbouring one, with the short distance a good reason to see the sights, and experience the uniform hospitality and yet diverse culture and cuisine for which the entire region is famous. In doing so, a crucial and rare opportunity also presents itself: for the travelling fan to be pleasantly surprised when negative regional and cultural stereotypes are proved false. A benefit of tourism is that when preconceived assumptions don’t hold up to reality, it is often the truer experience that is carried back to home countries, enabling a virtuous cycle of more tourists, more business and fewer prejudiced impressions. With tourists likely to fly into the UAE, Oman and Bahrain, this is a chance for the Gulf to showcase itself.

That these world-class events are taking place “at home” is an important chapter in sporting and cultural history and a matter of undeniable pride for millons across the Middle East and North Africa. What is sometimes under-appreciated is the depth of footballing tradition that exists in the Mena region. Whether it is Arab ownership and funding to develop young talents at the grassroots level around the globe, or to rejuvenate world-renowned clubs in need of financial resources and leadership, the examples are numerous.

The national teams’ achievements on the pitch also deserve to be acknowledged, whether it is Egypt’s seven African Cup of Nations wins, or memorable performances from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Asian Cup, the Olympics and the World Cup. These success stories have their origins in the robust club structures that are in place in several of these countries. Abu Dhabi emirate alone, for example, is home to five major clubs.

Finally, the Middle East has been home to some of the biggest football tournaments in recent years. The UAE, it is worth recalling, hosted the previous Asian Cup, in 2019. That the World Cup should take place now, in this neighbourhood, is the icing on the cake – indeed for Qatar, and for the broader Arab world.

Published: November 21, 2022, 2:00 AM
EDITORIAL