Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Sports, Society, and the State in the Middle East Working Group I


On March 12-13, 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held a working group under its research initiative on “Sports, Society, and the State in the Middle East.” During the course of two days, participants identified key gaps in the literature on sports in the Middle East through the lenses of their various disciplines. The participants led discussions on a number of related subtopics, including: the historical evolution of sports in the Middle East; nationalism, identity and sports; ethno-national conflict and sports; social inclusion, gender, and sports; fans, brands, sponsorships and the commercial development of sports; the politics of football in the Levant; physical education; the evolution of sports media; Khaleeji soft power, branding and sports investments; and GCC mega sporting events and foreign relations.

Murat Yildiz led the opening discussion on “The Historical Evolution of Sports in the Middle East.” Yildiz identified a number of questions that remain understudied in the literature on the history sports in the Middle East. He proposed that it would be worthwhile to develop a unique periodization of the Middle East through the lens of sports, and that such a periodization might look quite different from the social and political markers that are most commonly applied when separating the region into different historical eras. Yildiz also suggested that the question of the relationship between late imperial structures and sports development in the region needs further study. It is also important to understand why Middle Eastern states had attempted to promote sports in rural areas, and how this has contributed to our understanding of the urban history of the Middle East. Clearly there have historically been factors that have led to certain sports being more successful and popular in the region, with others less so. Yildiz claimed that studying these factors would contribute to the existing literature. 

Nadim Nassif provided an overview of new research questions in relation to “Nationalism, Identity, and Sports in the Middle East.” Nassif argued that there is a “Gold War” and a global race among Middle Eastern states seeking to engage in sports for the purpose of branding, image-building, and reputational gain. The scholarship that looks at the role of sports in identity and nation-building in the Middle East is incomplete, as it has focused primarily on the cases of Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen. Nassif emphasized that the study of sports in the Middle East has not provided enough empirical evidence for how sports are playing into or trying to counter the broader sectarian divisions across the region. Nassif suggested that there are three levels of analysis which need to be applied in order to understand the role of sports in Middle Eastern politics: the relationship between regime type and sports development; the strength or weakness of the state and the role of sports in nation-building; and the different echelons of stakeholders, and their particular motives behind their engagement in sports. Among other questions which need to be addressed, he suggested: What are the factors that impact ethno-national rivalries in sports? How can states promote national identity through sports when in fact so many “national” sports teams rely heavily on foreign players and coaches? How do states position themselves regionally and internationally by hosting mega elite sports events? How do sports investments contribute to national identity? Is there a correlation between self-identity and involvement in sports? Do sports serve as a tool to stimulate or counter sectarianism and sub-national identities? Additional questions that are relevant examine the role of diaspora- and homeland-players in stimulating public support to national teams, the evolution of cross-national identities and sports, and the role of political parties in appointing heads of national sports federations.

Closely related to questions raised during Nassif’s session, Tamir Sorek led a discussion on “Ethno-national Conflict and Sports in the Middle East.” Sorek explored how sports can impact public attitudes in countries experiencing ethno-national conflicts, and how sports can promote the exclusion of ethno-linguistic and religious communities. For example, he raised a question: How does the performance of an Arab star in the Israeli national team impact Jews’ perceptions of Arabs? The same question could also be asked with regards to Copts in Egypt, and other communities in the ethnically and religiously plural Middle East. Another issue Sorek raised is the display of nationalism in sports arenas. He claimed that at the time some states are antagonistic towards displays of overt nationalism in sports arenas (i.e. Israel’s response towards Palestinian identity expressed in public), other states remain agnostic towards such displays (i.e. Lebanon). Sorek also raised an interesting question on the value of sports sanctions as a tool for modifying the behavior of states seen to be acting outside international norms.

Nida Ahmad continued with a discussion on identity, social inclusion, and exclusion by examining the issue of gender and sports in the Middle East. Ahmad raised a number of questions in relation to women’s participation in sports in the Middle East, including how social media has shaped female athletes’ ability to communicate at the national, regional, and international level with their audiences and fan-bases. She also suggested that there are new forms of physical activity which are gaining popularity among women in the MENA region, particularly “action” sports. Ahmad observed that there is increasing agency of for women in terms of creating a new narrative around sports. Female athletes and sports participants are influencing the regulatory environment, changing local and regional norms, and perhaps making sports more accessible to Muslim women at a global level. There has been a gradual easing of regulations that had previously prohibited the wearing of hijab in international sports competitions. International sportswear brands’ have also made a strategic shift towards producing sportswear designed for Muslim women athletes, such as the Nike “Pro Hijab” advertising campaign demonstrates. Ahmad also suggested that some Middle Eastern states have promoted women in sports as a means to counter radicalization in their societies. Additional worthwhile contributions to the literature could be examining underground females’ sports competitions, the emergence of senior female sports officials and their role in sports organizations and federation, and girls’ inclusion in athletic programs through the educational system.

Simon Chadwick led a session on the commercialization of sports in the Middle East. Chadwick stated that there is a sizable sports economy in the Middle East which is valued at about sixteen billion US dollars, and yet it remains significantly understudied. Chadwick proposed five approaches to studying the sports economy in the Middle East: fans, brands, sponsors, commerce, and the future. Expanding on this, Chadwick raised a number of questions: on what basis do fans engage with sports? How is this manifested in their choices, thinking, and behavior? How are sports brands built? And what contribution can this make to the business of sport in the Middle East? What forms can sponsorship in the Middle East take? And how should sponsorship deals be managed to ensure maximum effectiveness? What is the economic and commercial role of sport in the Middle East? And how should the challenges faced by the industry be addressed? And finally, what role will new sports and new sports formats play in the Middle East?

Dag Tuastad shifted the discussion to “The Politics of Football in the Levant.” Tuastad claimed that football remains at the center of politics in the Levant. It reflects cultural and social processes in the region; in addition to being a space for political struggle between the social units of state. Therefore, given that remembering takes place in individual minds through membership, Tuastad argued that football should be studied as a critical constituent of the social memory of peoples of the Levant. This would explain the active remaking of the past through social groups’ attachment to the past. Tuastad gave a number of examples that justify his argument, among which: Palestinians and their invented symbols that represent their identity in Jordanian stadiums; primary solidarity groups, “tribal football”; how Hamas took control over football clubs and resumed the league once it came to power; and the Palestinian football league of Beirut.

Following Tuastad’s discussion, Ferman Konukman explored “Physical Education and Sports Development in the Middle East.” Konukman traced physical education through the imperial history of and in the Middle East. This raised questions on how colonial experiences impacted the physical education system in the GCC? And what is the role of foreign physical educators in the development of sports in the wider region? He also highlighted how, later on during state building processes, physical education served as a bonding and nation-building strategy, particularly in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and the GCC states. Konukman then focused the discussion on physical education curriculum in the Middle East, and asked: How has physical education in the Middle East accommodated students with special needs? What is the perception of female students towards physical education in the Middle East? How do co-ed classes impact physical education in the Middle East? These questions led the discussion to issues around policymaking, graduate and executive sports management programs, and elite sports academies in the Middle East.

Mahfoud Amara discussed another aspect of sports: “The Evolution of Sports Media in the Middle East.” Amara started by highlighting the various types of sports media that range from state television’s sports channels; sports magazines that turned into television channels; private-owned channels; cable-channels; football clubs television channels; and YouTube channels. The wide variety of sports media channels and popular sports programs provoked questions around the international legislation of broadcasting, and migration of sports journalists. Amara highlighted BeIN Sports as an understudied case-study. He raised questions, among which: Is BeIN Sports commercially viable, or underwritten by the government similar to Al Jazeera news? Why did Aljazeera Sports transform into BeIN Sports? In the competitive structure of media rights, does Qatar have the capacity to compete in the broadcasting market? Is BeIN Sports an example of economic diversification? What role does social media play in competing with BeIN Sports? What intellectual property rights exist in broadcasting mega sports competitions? And how are they enforced?

Nnamdi Madichie led a discussion on “Khaleeji Soft Power, Branding, and International Sports Investments.” Madichie focused his session on the role of states in the development of sports for branding, and claiming regional leadership purposes. He highlighted how such endeavors by states are not only to claim international and regional recognition, but also to consolidate legitimacy domestically. In analyzing states’ sports endeavors, Madichie investigated issues around sports tourism; investments in elite sports; sports diplomacy; sports foreign investments; and promoting Khaleeji products in European stadia.

Finally, Danyel Reiche discussed “GCC Mega Events and Foreign Relations: Reputational Gain or Loss?” Reiche started his discussion by defining mega-sporting events, which he claimed are events that have global or continental appeal. There are two dimensions of mega sports events: hosting, and participation. Insofar as hosting mega-sporting events in concerned, he raised questions around: What drives hosting mega sports events in the GCC?Why do some GCC states still behind in terms of hosting mega sports events?  Why do not GCC states cooperate in hosting mega sports events? What is happening with the infrastructure states invest in after the sporting event? Reiche also raised issues around perceptions of hosting mega sports in GCC by nationals and expats, and the impact of hosting such event on the local society. With regards to participation, Reiche discussed specialization in specific sports, and institutional promotion of participation.

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

Participants and Discussants:

  • Nida Ahmad, University of Waikato, New Zealand
  • Mahfoud Amara, Qatar University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Simon Chadwick, Salford University, Manchester
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Monèm Jemni, Qatar University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ferman Konukman, Qatar University
  • Craig LaMay, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Nnamdi Madichie, London School of Business and Management
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nadim Nassif, Notre Dame University, Lebanon
  • Danyel Reiche, American University of Beirut
  • Tamir Sorek, University of Florida
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Betsi Stephen, Georgetown University
  • Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Murat Yildiz, Skidmore College

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS