Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Football in the Middle East Working Group I

CIRS events

On October 27-28, 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies held the inaugural working group for its research initiative on “Football in the Middle East.” The meeting brought together regional and international scholars and experts to discuss some of the understudied areas related to football in the region and to identify original research questions in their respective areas of focus. Over the course of two days a number of topics were discussed, including, football academies, women’s football in Turkey, the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar, beIN and sports broadcasting rights, football management and administration, football players’ perception of national identity, football clubs in Iran, Palestinian football players in Lebanon, youth refugees and football, football and regime legitimization, and football fans and protests in Algeria.

The working group began with Dr. Valter Di Salvo’s talk on Qatar’s strategies to build a high-performance football environment. Dr. Di Salvo, the Director of Football Performance and Science at Aspire Academy, compared the football environment of three countries, Spain, England, and Qatar, and stressed that building a successful football environment in Qatar needed an understanding of the local social context. A seven-goal plan was implemented by Aspire to develop and strengthen the game in Qatar. This included, data collection on a players’ performance and abilities; recruiting a professional group of staff and trainers; assessing the needs of coaches and players; formulating and implementing a training strategy; building of training facilities and assessment labs; integrating knowledge throughout the process; and finally sharing of knowledge with other partners for development of the game. The last goal led to the formation of the Aspire Fellows Community that presently has representation from 50 globally-renowned football clubs and federations and has 260 presentations in its database for knowledge sharing.

Building on the discussion of Qatar’s football development strategy, Dr. Wadih Ishaq spoke about Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Dr. Ishaq pointed out that while scholars and analysts have addressed football, politics, and socioeconomic issues, there is little work that offers an internal perspective on the World Cup and its implications for Qatari society, economy, and culture. Among other topics, it is important to study sports and education in Qatar, and the long term educational opportunities and job security for athletes.

Simon Chadwick spoke about the off-field management of football and highlighted a study by Jasoor Institute that measured the size of the sports economy in the Middle East. The study examined the broader sports landscape in the region and drew attention to major clubs and federations in the GCC member states. Chadwick suggested that in order to address the question of football management in the GCC, five areas need to be studied; fan engagement, investment, sponsorship, brands and branding, and industrial networks. Professor Chadwick identified a number of core research questions: How can football in the GCC region establish and build sustainable match day attendances? What role in the development of football in the region should investment play? What purpose do the portfolios of GCC region football sponsors serve? Can football club brands in the GCC region ever rival those of their international rivals? How is football contributing to broader industrial challenges facing the GCC region?

Ross Griffin explored the question of national identity and football players of the Qatari national team. The composition of the Qatari team contains a host of players born in countries such as Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, France, and Portugal. Their success as a national team presents the opportunity to revisit the complicated relationship between nationalism, football, and national identity from a player perspective. The identity dilemmas that inevitably ensue when athletes are naturalized has been given significant consideration by scholars of sport and nationalism. Financial gain, cultural affinity, and professional ambition have all been cited as motivating factors influencing an athlete’s decision to switch allegiances. Nevertheless, the majority of these analyses have been undertaken with the construct of a team, the fan, or the nation in mind. Ross Griffin suggested that there is a need to include the subjective perspective of players themselves in their performance of national identity.

John McManus stated that creating a strong legacy for the World Cup was an inherent component of Qatar’s bidding pitch. Training and development of sports administrators and industry experts are part of this legacy. McManus argued that the literature on sports administration often focuses on mega sporting events, and there is very little attention given to other forms of organized sporting competitions. It was suggested that there is a need to examine Qatar’s wider sporting landscape and to look at organizations such as beIN, Qatar Sports League, and Aspire Academy and address their roles when it comes to sporting legacy building. Some of the research questions that were put forward included looking at expatriate games and their administrations; examining what it means to be a sports administrator; exploring the administration of football clubs and federations; What is an event gypsy?; as well as moving away from western-centric literature and focusing on the Middle East specific context.

Craig LaMay drew attention to the beIN network and broadcasting rights in the Middle East. Pay television has changed the way people watch sports in the region, and other broadcasters often view beIN’s monopoly over broadcasting rights as aggressive. The network has 40 percent of global media rights, and these include copyrights and audio/visual rights over broadcasting. However, the network is not just limited to sports channels but also has several entertainment stations. Sixty percent of the content produced is in Arabic, and according to statistics, 66 percent of total viewership over television for the FIFA 2018 World Cup was through beIN sports channels. An understudied area with regards to the beIN network is the entry of the beOUTQ network, which is a pirate pay-television broadcaster and is an example of industrial level piracy of broadcasting. The network not only pirates channels from the beIN network but also channels from Europe and the US. Craig LaMay suggested the need to examine the nature of pay television and the issue of piracy in broadcasting and its implications for beIN in the long run.

The literature on sports gives examples of how sports can be used as a medium through which refugees can be integrated into the social and political fabric of a country. However, this is not always the case, as seen with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Palestinians in Lebanon are a stateless people, and the football federation in the country has put a cap on the number of Palestinian players that can play in a team. Each club team is allowed to have only one Palestinian player, and they cannot play as a goalkeeper. Palestinian are also restricted from holding property in Lebanon as well as are banned from 30 professions, which is another form of discrimination that they have to face. In response to these restrictions on joining Lebanese football clubs and teams, Palestinians have formed their leagues under which they have formed teams and hold matches. Danyel Reiche’s presentation shed light on these issues and proposed four areas, which could be studied in regards to Palestinian football players, i.e., Palestinian diaspora clubs elsewhere, Palestinian football in Israel, the condition of Palestinians as stateless people in Lebanon and the efforts to gain statehood by recognition. Reiche’s focus would be to examine the cap on players, when and why it was introduced, and discrimination of Palestinian players in Lebanese football.

Middle Eastern rules have frequently used football as a tool for regime legitimization. While much of the literature on this focus on the soft power aspects of football, Abdullah Al-Arian, proposed that there is more to states’ instrumental usage of football than soft power and brand-building. Abdullah Al-Arian suggested that football is used by states to pursue and achieve hard political objectives. States have used football for extending neo-imperial control and power consolidation, regime legitimization, countering threats, political repression, and to mask unpopular regional and domestic policies or sports-washing. None of these forms of legitimization are mutually exclusive, and states have used multiple of these at the same time. Furthermore, emphasis in the literature has been on identifying policies related to the national teams and federations, and not a lot has been written in regards to economic expansion and using clubs and ownership to explain some of these categories.

Maher Mezahi, detailed the history of football in Algeria, with the arrival of the game in the country with colonial rule, the formation of the first Algerian football club and the national team as a tool of protest against the colonizers and the subsequent use of football stadiums to protest against the political regime after independence. Football fans and club ultras express their political, social, and economic demands during matches in forms of songs that they produce and publically distribute. Mehar stated that the protesters who are currently rallying on the streets for regime change replicate the football fan behavior. They gather after Friday prayers, at a famous square, peacefully march around the town in Algiers, sing songs that are produced by football fans, and display anti-government calligraphy and tifos. The support from organized ultras and football fans has enabled the protesters, to organize and execute street protests and overcome the fear of law keepers.

Ramon Spaaij brought the discussion back to football’s role in the development and inclusion of refugees with a focus on youth refugees. Spaaij expressed that there is a Eurocentric focus and bias on the research conducted on the topic and that there is a mismatch between research sites and the locations where the majority of the world’s displaced people reside, with Turkey being the main exception. The reliance on policy categories limits academic research by constraining the type of questions asked, the objects of study, and the methods and analysis adopted. There is a need for research that uncritically accepts the boundaries of the field imposed by policy categories will tend to confirm and legitimize the assumptions made by actors. Some of research gaps that were identified included; over-emphasis on instrumental dimension vs experiential dimension of football, decolonizing research, ethical relationships in research, looking at different innovative methods, strengths-based approaches and reframing of refugees in terms of risk, threat and deficiency and capturing the diverse voices of refugees regarding their own sporting aspirations, needs and achievements as opposed to merely echoing dominant sport policy agendas.

The debate around gender issues and sports, particularly football, is a prevalent theme in the Middle East. The participants looked at female football players in Turkey for the following session. Yagmur Nuhrat identified three areas for further research on the topic; equality for women, with focus on the dynamics of equality rather than justice; knowledge production and better education for female football players; and the issue of space and spatiality and how that relates to the environment of playing fields and neighborhoods. Some of the questions that were put forward were; Can we achieve equality, and what kind of equality are we talking about when it comes to female football players? What are some of the elements of this struggle and resistance? What are the discourses when it comes to physical strength? How women’s’ empowerment is conceptualized by footballers and how they view this discourse? Female athletes may feel physically unsafe if they were not in a structured space. Even if it is exclusionary, how does this structured space create feelings of safety for women?

Alireza Farsi closed the working group meeting, with his presentation on politics and football clubs in Iran. Farsi detailed the playing history of the Iranian national team and explained the structure of the football federation in Iran. Iranian federation has sixteen registered teams, out of which only one is privately owned, whereas the rest of the fifteen teams are owned and managed by the government. It was proposed that the football in Iran needs a component of social responsibility, and the main driver behind should be the privatization of the clubs. Farsi gave an example of the income generated by the Premier League in England and stated that the privatization of the game could bring in economic and industrial growth as well as build up the private sector and cash revenues. The presentation also proposed strategies to initiate social responsibility and privatization plans, which could be applied to various federations across the Middle East.

In conclusion, Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS, thanked the participants for identifying key gaps in the literature on football in the Middle East. It is worth noting that the participants will contribute empirically grounded papers addressing these questions, among others, to be published in an edited volume under the auspices of CIRS.

Participants and Discussants: 

  • Ahmed Abbasi, Qatar Football Association, Qatar
  • Abdullah Al-Arian, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Najwa Al-Thani, Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Qatar
  • Mohammed Al-Thawadi, Aspire Academy, Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Chaimaa Benkermi, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Simon Chadwick, emlyon Business School, France
  • Valter Di Salvo, Aspire Academy, Qatar
  • Alireza Farsi, Shahid Beheshty University, Iran
  • Ross Griffin, Qatar University
  • Salma Hassabou, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Wadih Ishac, Qatar University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Craig LaMay, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • John McManus, Qatar University
  • Maher Mezahi, Independent Football Journalist, Algeria 
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Yagmur Nuhrat, Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey
  • Irene Promodh, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Abdul Rehmaan Qayyum, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Danyel Reiche, American University of Beirut
  • Khushboo Shah, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Rodney Sharkey, Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
  • Ramon Spaaij, Victoria University, Australia 
  • Betsi Stephen, Georgetown University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS