In August of this year, the world’s most famous and according to Forbes magazine – most highly valued sports franchise – Manchester United of England’s globally recognised Premier League (EPL), were reported to be on the brink of signing Lucas Moura, one of the most gifted young football players in Brazil. However, at the eleventh hour Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) of France’s Ligue 1, blew United’s multi-million pound offer out of the water with a 35-million deal that secured the player for PSG and provided further evidence of a seismic power shift emerging in the international sporting arena.
In May this year, Manchester United were denied winning back-to-back EPL titles by Manchester City whose dramatic two goals in injury time in the final match of the season ended a 44-year-long drought for the club in the competition. While these two events might seem at first-hand to be unrelated and quite typical occurrences in the highly competitive world of European football, on deeper inspection they serve as case studies in the long- term ambition held by Qatar and Abu Dhabi to position themselves as not just players, but ultimately leaders in the rapidly expanding international sports industry.
If Manchester United represents the traditional and historical power structures of Western sport, then recent challenges to its supremacy from both PSG and United’s less celebrated local neighbour Manchester City, represent a new economic dominance in global sport that comes with a decidedly Middle Eastern flavour. The purchase of Manchester City football club in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG) and its 2012 wresting of the English Premier league crown from fierce neighbours Manchester United brought global attention to an emerging sports economy in the Middle East, and in particular the Gulf nations, a process that actually began as far back as the 1980s when Sharjah hosted a succession of international cricket series. Today the Gulf is established as one of the pre-eminent sporting destinations hosting a myriad of international standard sporting events and investing in some of the most potent and iconic sporting franchises and competitions in the world. This investment dovetails with a sports industry in the West that has become increasingly commodified over the past 20 years and is eager to expand its brands to new regions such as the Middle East and Asia.
The Gulf nations in the 21st century are markets which have been open to the expansionism of Western sports brands due to their capacity for extraordinary levels of capital expenditure in sporting businesses at a time when the global economic crisis has induced a culture of austerity in many other parts of the world. However, states like Abu Dhabi and Qatar are not passive ‘victims’ of these Western economic interests, instead they have sought outright ownership of some of the most established and prestigious sports teams in Europe.
The culture of austerity that permeates many parts of the West was demonstrated recently when Manchester United’s American owners the Glazer family, desperate to raise funds for their debt leveraged acquisition, floated 10 per cent of the club on the New York Stock Exchange to a very underwhelming response. Subsequently, the plight of Manchester United, debt leveraged to the hilt by their American owners, struggling to compete for the top players in the transfer market and hawking itself unsuccessfully to investors on the NYSE appears like a sporting metaphor for the economic decline of the West itself, described by some commentators as in terminal decline and on financial life support.
By contrast, United’s close neighbours Manchester City have emerged from nearly a century spent in their rival’s shadow to become the pre-eminent power in English football, winning the F.A. Cup, English Premier League and Community Shield in a little over 15 months and attracting the cream of the world’s playing talent to its impressive playing roster. City then can be seen as symbolic of the rising dominance of the East in global affairs and ADUG’s investment in the club is designed to promote the emirate as a global centre for trade, investment, tourism and a burgeoning service economy.
The capital expenditure of the Abu Dhabi Group in Manchester City has been unprecedented in the history of professional football. The Guardian earlier this year estimated this investment to equal at least 1 billion, including staggering annual player wage payments of close to 200 million and a transfer fees investment approaching half a billion pounds.
However, this level of Middle Eastern investment in European football is not the sole remit of Manchester City and Abu Dhabi. The aforementioned Paris Saint-Germain, a classic ‘sleeping giant’ of French football was purchased last year by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a Qatari sovereign wealth fund, who like ADUG seek to promote their state as a brand and destination via the Parisian club. In the year of ownership to date, QSI has invested 200 million in player signings and reportedly came very close to signing British football superstar David Beckham earlier this year. As reported in the Financial Times, the choice by QSI to purchase PSG represents very shrewd logic. With a greater urban population of more than 10 million inhabitants and no other professional football club located the city, combined with the inherent glamour and prestige that Paris invokes -- PSG represents excellent value for QSI due to the enormous untapped potential that PSG offers as a global brand.
Crucially, both Abu Dhabi’s and Qatar’s investments in European professional football clubs are designed to leverage other national prestige companies.
In Manchester City’s case it is Etihad Airways, the flagship carrier of Abu Dhabi which appears as the sponsor on shirts worn by the players and whose name adorns the stadium the team plays in. In PSG’s case it is Al Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite television broadcaster that has rapidly gained global influence and is branching into sports broadcasting, purchasing television rights to amongst other things, the European Champions League and French Ligue 1 which by no coincidence at all, PSG plays in. It is these kinds of building up to such a bid with very successful stagings of the 2006 Asian Games and the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Criticisms of the Qatari bid revolving around the size of the state and the extreme weather encountered in the summer ignore the enormous capital investment the state will bring to the staging of the tournament, the technological ingenuity they will apply to stadium design, the temporary and demountable design of the stadiums, the vast opportunities the first staging of the cup in the Middle East presents, the promise by the organisers to deliver a carbon-neutral tournament, and the strategic location of the Gulf between Europe, Africa and Asia. The stadiums will be climate controlled, and according to the New York Times, sections of them will be shipped off to various parts of the developing world after the completion of the cup.
However, mega sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup provide little in the way of direct economic benefit -- instead they provide more intangible benefit in the form of brand values and positive exposure to and association with, leading sports commodities which command significant symbolic value in the global marketplace. Subsequently this form of ‘place’ branding has been at the heart of much of the Gulf region’s sports investment strategy which seeks to leverage exposure and brand values from these sports investments and events to market Gulf nations, regions and cities which are emerging economically and seeking to diversify their economies beyond oil and gas production and into burgeoning service sectors.
Subsequently, sports investment serves to highlight the economic progress, infrastructural development, culture, and tourist potential that Abu Dhabi and Qatar have aspired to. This was reflected in ADUG’s statement upon purchasing Manchester City in 2008, which according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper claimed that ‘by engaging into sports investment, ADUG aims to reinforce Abu Dhabi’s position as a capital of both sport and economic development through…supporting the emirate’s sports and attracting the world’s attention to the United Arab Emirates.
Sports investment and events staging serve as an important sector of a burgeoning service economy in the Gulf states which includes the promotion of transit hubs, airlines, tourism, educational services, events management, financial services, real estate, and healthcare, the successful provision of which, future-proofs Abu Dhabi and Qatar by decoupling them from an economic over-reliance on finite resources like oil and gas. This process is at a more advanced state in nearby Dubai where oil reserves are much scarcer than in Abu Dhabi and
As the global economy becomes more integrated, cities, regions and nations are engaged in ever more competitive processes designed to distinguish them from other regions and to attract human capital, foreign investment, tourism and other service-industry trade. The hosting of international sports events provides hosts with a global platform to demonstrate their excellence in a variety of endeavours and domains in terms of architecture and innovative stadium design, technological ingenuity, events organisation and planning, and hospitality, and these events serve as highly-mediated advertising for the respective city. In the process, these kinds of investments widen the state’s sphere of influence as well as promoting the wider region as modern, inclusive and progressive, a point not lost on Qatar’s World Cup bid supremo Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani who was reported in the New York Times as heralding Qatar’s hosting of the event as an opportunity to “present a new image of the Middle East — far away from the clichés and closer to reality”.
So while Europe in particular lurches from one economic crisis to another, Gulf nations have increasingly invested in the continent and sport now occupies a significant sector of the investment strategies of Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds. Sport offers a global platform which defies cultural and social differences and the major European football brands alongside the FIFA World Cup have enormous traction not just in the Western world but increasingly so in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This strategy of investing in recognised sports brands provides the Gulf states with instant exposure as compared to the long-term, high-risk, high capital expenditure involved in attempting to create domestic sports properties with global exposure. The difficulties involved in establishing domestic sports contests like a local football league that can challenge the established European competitions like the EPL and the Champions League in terms of global exposure are numerous and onerous and evidenced in the history of professional football in Japan and China and the Asian Football Confederation’s Asian Champions League, all competitions that have enjoyed decent levels of success, but which also pale into insignificance in comparison with European football which captures large audiences across nearly every corner of the globe.
Quatar and Abu Dhabi have utilised sport to both diversify their economies and to promote their respective states and national brands on the global stage.
The staging of events like the 2022 World Cup also offer the opportunity for brand reinvention, providing a platform to extinguish negative perceptions and stereotypes that still abound in many parts of the world in relation to the Middle East
QOC Spelling efficiency in sports administration
The award-winning Qatar Olympic Committee is at the forefront as Qatar tries to bring the world together through sport
The State of Qatar has taken its pursuit of excellence in sports to the level of all-round excellence and infused citizens with a new spirit of athleticism, which gives them the confidence to participate and win at international sports events. The London Olympics is evidence of that spirit but at the core of the country’s spectacular success in sports is the hard work, vision and efficient administration of the Qatar Olympic Committee, which has won international recognition for its tireless efforts.
At the 9th World Conference on Sport and the Environment held in the country, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) presented a special award to Qatar Olympic Committee in recognition of its commitment to the environment and sustainable technology.
QOC is presided by HH the Heir Apparent Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who is also a member of the IOC. QOC’s general assembly or supreme governing body meets once a year with, among other members, participation by representatives of member bodies. At least five National Sports Federations representing an Olympic Sport are its members.
The General Assembly supervises the management of all aspects of the Olympic Committee. Its Board of Directors comprises representatives of mostly National Sports federations. The General Assembly elects the board once in four years. Elections are conducted in the year after the Olympic Summer Games are held. Judging by that norm the next election will be held in 2013.
The General Assembly approves and modifies the statutes and bye-laws of QOC; accepts new members and also has the authority to suspend or expel members. It determines membership fees; adopts activity reports and future projects; decides upon proposals submitted by the board of directors and members; adopts the annual financial report and forecasts budget; conducts statutory elections; elects internal auditors; appoints external auditors and receives audited financial statements and can voluntarily dissolve the QOC.
QOC’s Board of Directors comprises the president, secretary-general, two vice-presidents, a treasurer general, up to four members and members of the IOC in Qatar. Additionally the Board is authorized to co-opt a maximum of two persons known for their sports experience as public personalities. These appointed persons enjoy the same rights and duties as the other Board members.
In its website, QOC states its vision “To become a leading nation in bringing the world together through sport” and mission as “to put sport and physical recreation activity everywhere in Qatar so as to have harmonious development of men and women in a true Olympic spirit and in accordance with the Olympic Charter.” The successful FIFA World Cup 2022 bid and all activities undertaken after it just go on to show how seriously it takes its statements
Spearheading drive for excellence
The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence is well on track for winning recognition in future as the world’s leading sports academy providing integrated sports development, sports science and academic learning for promising young talent.
When Qatari athlete Mutaz Barsham skillfully cleared the bar before a spell- bound audience during the recently concluded London Olympics, not only did he win the bronze medal for the event and fulfill his own aspiration but also that of his alma mater, Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence. He went on to kindle the aspirations of thousands of young Qataris that some day they too could perform such heroic feats and firmly put their proud nation on the international sports map.
For many years now Qatar’s own sports legend, rally driver and ace shooter Nasser al-Attiyah, has come to symbolise the sporty face of Qatar.
Living up to expectations Nasser did scoop up a bronze at London for skeet shooting, however, the surprise package was the performance of the younger athletes who have been training rigorously for their big day.
Established in 2004 by an Emiri Decree, Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, has its eyes set on winning recognition as the world’s leading sports academy in the development of youth athletes by 2020. Not just that, it also aspires to be a leading player in fitness, health and wellness education in Qatar.
The excellent performance put up by Barsham and other Qatari athletes during the Olympics went on to prove that the Academy truly believes in walking the talk and that it is on the right track leading to success.
The Academy provides integrated sports development, sports science and academic learning for scholarship boys from Grade 7 (between ages 12 and 13) to Grade 12 (between ages 17 and 18). It also delivers an ambitious health and lifestyle programme for the community delivering over 25,000 classes annually.
The management team is headed by Director General Ivan Bravo, who prior to joining the Academy, was Director of Strategy at Real Madrid CF, an internationally-renowned sports institution. The rest of the six-member management team has equally impressive credentials.
In 2008, the Academy, until then an independent government-funded agency, was incorporated as a strategic business unit (SBU) into the new parent organisation of Aspire Zone Foundation. Aspire Academy is providing leadership in sports, sports science, academics and community-centric programmes that recognise the significance of sports in improving the quality of lives of people in Qatar and the region. It builds human capacities at all levels by a range of rigorous development programmes, training courses and learn-by-doing modules.
In addition to strengthening the sporting culture in the country, Aspire Academy ensures that various stakeholders understand the potential sports offer as a means to achieve their own objectives.
Its years of experience in the field is fuelling and energising Qatari government agencies, sports
federations, individual clubs and other partners’ efforts to synthesise and integrate knowledge at local, regional and global levels.