Rafael Nadal arrived in Kuwait this week to launch his eponymous tennis academy with an ambitious goal to transform the game's grassroots "all over the Middle East". Two years after he opened the school's first branch in his hometown of Manacor in Spain, Nadal is on a mission to export the methodology that has thus far earned him 84 singles career titles – 19 of them majors – to other parts of the world.
The decision by one of the greatest players of all time to choose the Mena region as his first stop outside Europe towards this cause speaks volumes about the immense potential the Arab world has for unearthing a generation of tennis superstars in the years to come. It should also serve as yet another reminder of the benefits of using sports and recreation as a means to invigorate the largely young populations living in the region.
Indeed, tennis is just one among a wide variety of athletic pursuits vying to grab the Middle East's attention. In addition to legacy sports, such as horse racing and showjumping, and established fixtures like football, track-and-field and golf, there has been an explosion of interest among those running cricket, rugby and a number of motorsports and e-sports competitions. Nadal's is not even the first academy with brand recognition to plant its roots here. Manchester City Football Club, the reigning Premier League champions, established a training school in Abu Dhabi, and many similar such partnerships have been fostered in the emirate.
Over the years, the UAE has become the region's pre-eminent destination for a wide variety of sports events, ranging from the Dubai Rugby Sevens to the Special Olympics. The idea first caught fire in the 1990s, and since then has helped transform the country into a hub of sports tourism, as Nick March has pointed out in these pages. Today Saudi Arabia, too, is using the soft power of sports to attract interest and investment from the wider world as it looks to diversify its largely oil-based economy.
The reasons for the region’s attractiveness are threefold: a strong middle class – particularly in the Gulf countries – an advantageous geographic location and, most crucially, a favourable demographic dividend.
Beyond the Gulf, the region as a whole has struggled to build on these advantages mostly because it has, over the past four decades, been set back by war, political instability, terrorism and sectarianism in some countries. It is to the credit of the likes of Syria, Iraq and Egypt to have over-performed in the football arena in recent times, with Syria only just missing qualification for the 2018 World Cup and Iraq lifting the Asian Cup in 2007. There are plenty of individual successes as well. Egypt's Mohamed Salah and Algeria's Riyad Mahrez are two of the Premier League's most potent forwards, while Tunisia's Ons Jabeur reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open women's singles this year.
Needless to say, the region is capable of producing many more Salahs and Jabeurs. This is where demographics are key. According to Unicef, children and young people in Mena account for nearly half of the region’s population and have the potential to "become extraordinary agents of change". It is important to remember, however, that the same report has pointed out that unlocking this potential requires investment to create opportunities “for meaningful learning, social engagement and work”.
That investment must come in the form of financial contributions and a commitment to regional peace. But it also requires recognition in the talent of our young people. With more votes of confidence like that of Nadal, the Middle East will be a region that plays to win.