Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

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


On September 24-25, 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held a second two-day working group under its research initiative on “Sports, Society, and the State in the Middle East.” During this working group, contributors presented their draft papers on a number of subtopics related to their areas of expertise and interest, and received feedback and comments from the rest of the participants. 

Murat Yıldız initiated the working group discussions by presenting his paper on “Sports in the Middle East: A Historical Overview.” In his paper, Yıldız offers a more complicated history of sports in the region by accomplishing three goals. First, he demonstrates that the spread, vernacularization, and popularization of sports in the Middle East were inextricably connected to broader social, political, economic, and cultural transformations during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Second, he traces the ways in which “Western” sports and physical activities were vernacularized throughout the region. Finally, Yıldız demonstrates how nation-building and state-building projects played an integral role in shaping the spread and discursive boundaries of sports. 

Nadim Nassif presented his research on “The Development of Elite Sport Policies in the Middle East.” In this paper, Nassif argues that despite the large amount of financial and human resources at their disposal, Arab countries have achieved very modest results in the Olympics. Since 1996, when all twenty-two Arab countries participated in the Summer Games for the first time, these states have collectively won fewer than half the number of medals won by Italy, the Netherlands and Great Britain. Nassif’s paper attempts to answer the question of why the Arab Worlds’ resource and demographic wealth have not translated into greater national success in international sports competitions. He suggests that wealth and population are clearly not enough to ensure sports success if countries do not possess the political will to implement strategic policies for developing and supporting sports. 

Nnamdi Madichie presented a paper titled “Unpacking the Internationalization of Middle East Sports Officials.” Madichie’s paper describes the trends, attitudes, behaviors, and changing configuration of sports participation in the region. Using a qualitative methodological approach—notably a mixture of observational research protocol (including personal and participant observations), ethnography and non-participant observation based on key readings of media clips on sports in the Middle East—Madichie argues that the landscape of sports business and management is rapidly changing in an environment unrenowned for certain professional sports. 

Nida Ahmad’s paper on “Sportswomen in the Middle East and North Africa’s Use of Social Media: The Cultural Politics of Digital Identity Representation” examines the development of the diverse ways in which sportswomen in the region are engaging with social media to represent their identities. Female athletes are creating digital content, highlighting their professional sports identities, and establishing’s their reputations while at the same time keeping family, society, and culture in mind.  Ahmad’s research paper is based on extensive qualitative interviews, and expanding the discussion to include digital platforms, Ahmad’s paper allows for an additional understanding of the sporting lives of women from the region.

Tamir Sorek presented his paper on “Ultras Hapoel Tel Aviv: Breaking Taboos and the Crisis of Israeli Liberal Secularism.” In this article, Sorek analyzes the rhetoric of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s hardcore fans and the demography of its wider circle of sympathizers. This examination reveals that the stadium rhetoric is actually an expression of fundamental social and political struggles between competing definitions of “Israeli-ness.” The transgressive rhetoric of Hapoel fans, Sorek argues, is partly related to the decline in the political power of the secular elite in Israel and the hardening of non-secular Israeli identity. In studying this topic, Sorek relies on: an online survey conducted in September 2012, the sample included 500 respondents who constitute a representative sample of the adult Hebrew-speaking population in Israel; a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in 2009, the sample included 2803 respondents who constitute a representative sample of the adult Jewish population in Israel; the website of Hapoel Tel Aviv fans; fans’ songs available on YouTube; and conversations with hardcore fans of Hapoel Tel Aviv. 

Following Sorek’s discussion, Dag Tuastad led a discussion on “Football’s Role in How Societies Remember: The Symbolic Wars of Jordanian-Palestinian Football.” Through a case study from Jordan, Tuastad demonstrates how a dominant arena for battles over national social memories has been the football arena. These symbolic battles may be organized into three phases: First, from 1970 to the Oslo-process in the 1990s:  Palestinian memorization of the civil war to reassert their national identity. Second, after the Oslo-process until the Arab Spring in 2011: East Bank Jordanians’ assertions of the historical roots of the alliance between East Bank tribes and the Jordanian monarchy. And finally, he draws attention to Palestinian refugees memorizing their common ethnic origin, confirming their refugee identities while being Jordanian citizens.

Ferman Knoukman shifted the discussion to “State-Building and Establishment of Modern Physical Education in Turkey.” In his paper, Knoukman argues that physical education classes had an important role for the state building project in the young Turkish republic. In supporting his argument, Knoukman first explains the establishment of modern physical education in Turkey and discusses the importance of the role of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in this process. Nation-building and educational development, as embedded parts of the modernization project, have been a common phenomenon across the Middle East, and by specifically studying this topic from the perspective of sports education this paper addresses a key gap in the literature.

Cem Tınaz presented his paper on “Assessment of Turkey’s Recent Sport Policies.” In his paper, Tınaz provides an overview of Turkey’s recent sports policy, identifies the pathways of the state for achieving success in sports, examines problems and deficiencies in national sport, and finally articulates the state’s reasons for hosting international sports events. For this research, Tınaz relies on thirteen semi-structured, in-depth interviews with former Turkish sports ministers and other sports authorities, including the CEO of Istanbul’s 2020 bid and the president of Turkish National Olympic Committee. Data generated from the interviews were analyzed, and results were examined. In addition to academic literature, government files, newspapers and other reports were also reviewed for the evaluation of the sports policies adopted by the Turkish government.

Building up on Tınaz’s paper, Danyel Reiche led a discussion on “Legacies of Mega-Sporting Events in Developing Countries: A Case Study of Lebanon.” Reiche’s paper provides a case study on experiences with hosting mega-sporting events in developing countries. The article follows a comparative approach by analyzing the legacies of four mega-sporting events hosted by Lebanon: The Pan-Arab Games in 1997; the AFC Asian Cup in 2000; the Francophone Games in 2009; and, the FIBA Asian Cup in 2017. Reiche examines the similarities and differences of the four events, identifying patterns in Lebanon’s previous experiences in hosting mega-sporting events and determining if it is beneficial for a small, developing country to bid for mega-sporting events in the future. He argues that there is a mixed picture when assessing Lebanon’s experiences with hosting mega-sporting events, with some short-term reputational gain but only a few indicators of long-term benefits for the country. Lebanon should give priority to youth and grassroots sports programs before hosting other mega-sporting events. For future bids, co-hosting with other countries might be a way to limit the financial risks for a developing country that struggles to provide its population with basic needs.

Simon Chadwick shifted the discussion to “The Business of Sports in the Gulf Cooperation Council.” In his article, Chadwick provides a brief examination of the GCC, specifically its economic profile, and then goes on to analyze the sports industry within the GCC. Initially, several common features of the industry are examined: economy and industry; soft power and diplomacy; nation branding and national identity; health and well-being; and socio-cultural factors. Chadwick then moves on to provide a statistical profile of sports in the region, and highlight a range of data focused on each GCC countries’ interest in sports, participation in sport, commercial revenues and economic contribution of sports. Thereafter, key issues pertaining to sports in the region are explored. Specifically: consumption; risk and security; regional tensions; resource management; economic and state pressures; and general observations (which broadly includes reference to specific GCC sports, such as camel racing). Finally, Chadwick draws conclusions in the context of the above.

Craig L. LaMay examined “The World Cup and its Challenge to Free Expression Norms in Qatar.” In his article, LaMay questions the effect, if any, which sports mega-events, and especially the World Cup, will have on Qatar’s free expression norms and laws. He claims that Qatar’s current media law is almost four decades old and by international standards both antiquated and repressive, and its penal code includes some severe restrictions on speech. On the one hand, it is tempting to argue that Qatar’s World Cup will have no effect on the environment for independent media in the country. But Qatar can be fairly described as both deeply traditional and aggressively modern. Much more than other states in the region, it has been open to its critics, including international human rights NGOs. Qataris themselves feel free to discuss and voice their opinions about public affairs; “Western” ideas about human rights and free expression are, if not accepted, accepted for consideration and debate. Qatar’s constitution, the only one in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council to be approved by voters, has an explicit free speech provision. Finally, Qatar’s modernization strategy rests on four pillars: sport, education, media, and art, which are all fundamentally expressive enterprises. Of these, none draws international media attention, or global audiences, like sport.  After completion of the 2018 Russia Cup, Qatar can begin to brand and promote the 2022 tournament, and the country will almost certainly come under renewed pressure from international human rights groups and international news organizations to further liberalize its media environment, to clarify its rules for media practice. 

Mahfoud Amara led a discussion on “Business and Policies of Sport TV Broadcasting in the MENA Region: A Case Study of beIN Sports.” Amara argues that the State-funded beIN Sport is dominating the market in the MENA region with exclusive rights to major professional leagues and World Championships of top sports. It is also currently present via different platforms (satellite, cable, and IPTV) in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Amara claims that the emergence of Qatar as an affluent actor in the business of sports TV broadcasting has been met with mixed feeling. On the one hand, some welcome beIN Sports as it contributes to the finances of professional leagues that are, to a great extent, dependent on TV revenues to cover their growing expenditure, particularly rocketing players’ salaries. On the other hand, beIN Sports is grated with suspicion as it is accused of being a tool of Qatar’s international branding strategy and “soft power.” Hence in his paper, Amara examines: how beIN Sports is maintaining its dominance in the MENA region, controlling/protecting broadcasting signal, and negotiating with different national and regional TV Stations; and how beIN Sport is negotiating internationally its entry into different markets and coalitions. Finally, Amara explores the impacts of beIN Sports and Qatar international sports strategy on regional political dynamics.

Finally, Charlotte Lysa concluded the working group discussion with her paper on “Qatari Female Footballers: Negotiating Gendered Expectations through University Football.” In her paper, Lysa examines how Qatari female football players are enabling themselves to play football in a culturally acceptable way by maneuvering established social norms. By first and forehand focusing on their actions and their own recounts, Lysa explores how Qatari female footballers are using their agency to work around cultural barriers to public participation in sports. When reaching a certain age, there are special expectations in Qatari culture as for how a woman should act, in accordance with what her role in society and the family should be. Lysa argues that these expectations are affecting what physical activities women can and cannot participate in, and transgressing such norms can lead to sanctions from society, in form of a “bad reputation” and difficulties in finding a partner to marry. Centralized is the idea that “traditional” women should be modest and protected from exposure to men who are not their family members. Lysa’s research demonstrates that by participating in the “women only” spaces of university football teams, young Qatari women are bypassing social norms in society, thus avoiding possible sanctions from society.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Nida Ahmad, University of Waikato, New Zealand
  • Mahfoud Amara, Qatar University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Simon Chadwick, University of Salford, Manchester
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ferman Konukman, Qatar University
  • Craig LaMay, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Charlotte Lysa, University of Oslo
  • 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
  • Sabika Shaban, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Tamir Sorek, University of Florida
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Cem Tınaz, Istanbul Bilgi University
  • Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo
  • Murat C.Yıldız, Skidmore College

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS