In 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) launched a new research initiative on “Football in the Middle East.” The aim of this research effort is to provide original academic insight on the political, economic, and social dynamics of football within the region. The project builds on the center’s previous research on “Sports, Society, and the State in the Middle East.” As part of Georgetown University-Qatar, CIRS is ideally placed to commence this timely effort, as the State of Qatar gears up to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. In the build-up to 2022, Qatar has been undertaking enormous economic and infrastructural developments, becoming a global hub for sports, and investing in the rapid expansion of its football capacity. The investments have already begun to pay off. In 2019, Qatar became the Asian football champion by winning the AFC Football Cup.
Football was first introduced to the Middle East in the latter part of the nineteenth century by various European colonial powers, most notably by the British in Egypt, Syria and Jordan and by the French in parts of North Africa. Though the game was exported into the Middle East and North Africa by British and French sailors and merchants, it was really foreign military personnel that made the game popular and helped its spread. Football training and practice was incorporated in newly opened school curriculums and became a means of introducing Western culture to local populations. Later on, during the struggle for independence, football became one of the tools through which resistance to colonial rule was expressed. Ever since, over the course of the past few decades, the sport has emerged as a significant economic, political, social, and cultural force in the Middle East. While football both as a sport to play and to watch, is principally an athletic and leisure activity, as in other parts of the world, it has moved beyond the stadium. Football pitches in countries from Egypt and Iran to Jordan and Algeria have become arenas where, among other issues, different forms of national, ideological and ethnic belonging are contested, where gender marginalization and economic grievances are expressed, and where states and their opponents vie for political influence.
The sport’s influence acts as a mobilizing force in the Middle East, both as a threat and as an opportunity for the authoritarian states of the region. Given its ability to arouse passions and mobilize massive crowds, football can potentially serve as a threat to ruling states. At the same time, victories by the national team on the pitch can serve as rallying points for whipping up nationalist sentiments and garnering political support.
Football has also been used, by states in the region, in diverting the attention of the public from core issues and grievances against domestic policies, as well as manipulating their emotions. Ruling elites often use the sport to pursue specific political agendas. For example, in Syria, any players, regardless of their talent on the football pitch, showing or expressing sympathy with the opposition is excluded from the national team. Currently, the majority of the Syrian football team is comprised of players, coaches, and administrators who support the Assad regime.
Affiliation with a particular club or a team is often a reflection of the fans’ political stances in the Middle East. Whether it is the Palestinian-Jordanians’ support for the al-Wihdat team, the support for FC Faisaly in Eastern Jordan, or the rivalry between the Al-Ahy and Al-Zamalek fans in Egypt, each of these teams and their fan-bases are aligned with particular configurations of political or social identity. This identity is also reflected in the ownership of these clubs; frequently football clubs become a representational tool of the political affiliations of the people or the entities that own them. In Iran, for instance, most of the professional football clubs are owned by different branches of the state. As a result, football management has become entwined with the state’s political and commercial interests.
In response to the growing social and financial inequalities within Middle Eastern societies, excellence in football can be a tool for social mobility regardless of class, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. Many working-class boys and men view entry into professional football as the means of improving their social standing, material advancement, and as a gateway to prestige and fame. With very few opportunities otherwise, football, in theory at least, provides an opportunity for upward social mobility. Mohammed Salah, for example, an Egyptian player for Liverpool Football Club, is seen as a prime example of a success story by hundreds of youth in Egypt.
Participation of women in sports has always attracted considerable political, social, and cultural attention in the Middle East, especially insofar as football is concerned. Gender-based discrimination in sports is commonplace in many countries in the Middle East. Girls are discouraged from participating in a game that is considered a “man’s domain.” In some countries in the Middle East, even watching football games in stadiums was an almost impossible task for women. The two countries in the Middle East that actively discouraged women from watching men play football are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi Arabia were allowed inside a public stadium to watch a men’s football match for the first time in January 2018. Despite many obstacles such as religious barriers, cultural norms, economic discrimination, imposed dress codes, and constant harassment, women football is now gaining support and momentum in countries like Jordan, UAE, and Turkey.
With the rise of new talent in the Middle East, there has been an increase in the popularity of football academies across the region. Perhaps the most renowned is the Aspire Academy in Qatar, which has adopted the combination of integrating professional football training and educational learning as a strategy for training young talent and preparing them culturally, physically, and technically to become professional players.
Qatar will be hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022 and has been reforming its social, economic and geographical landscape to prepare for the tournament. The country has undergone major urban and sports infrastructural development featuring breathtaking stadium designs, accompanied by a new metro and railway network and a much-expanded international airport to ready itself for the tournament in 2022. Over the past few years, various healthcare and sports entities have introduced new programs and initiatives to orient the population, both citizens and expatriates, towards an active and healthy lifestyle. These include various sport tournaments, training programs, healthy eating and lifestyle awareness campaigns and the introduction of annual National Sports Day beginning in 2012. Despite these developmental changes and a promise of an exceptional World Cup from the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the main body responsible for the organization and execution of the tournament, there is no clear strategy on how the event itself would be managed, particularly in regards to the promised “fan zones,” management of alcohol, and the large influx of spectators expected to come to the country for the tournament.
The CIRS research initiative on “Football in the Middle East” adopts a multidisciplinary approach, examining a broad range of political, social, and cultural dimensions of the sport. It explores a wide range of topics, including the relationship between the sport and international relations, and issues related to gender, tourism, social mobility, media broadcasting rights, the 2022 World Cup, and sports infrastructure.
Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS