Zahra Babar, Georgetown University-Qatar
Marc Lynch, The George Washington University
The 2022 World Cup held in Qatar became a focal point for a wide-ranging conversation about the relationship between sports and politics in the broader Middle East region. The tournament’s significance extended far beyond the spectacle of the game itself, sparking intense debates and emphasizing both the unity and fractures within the region, while also underscoring the complexities of the Middle East’s relationship with the broader world. Morocco’s epic run to the semi-final match galvanized a near-delirium of popular pan-Arab solidarities and an enthusiasm for Palestine which perhaps startled Arab leaders who were busy embracing the Abraham Accords process of normalization with Israel. These popular solidarities were visible not only across Doha’s stadiums and fan zones, but also crossed borders, as a surging pride for Arab football accomplishment appeared to, at least momentarily, transcend existing political, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural fissures—albeit at the cost, as Hisham Aidi reminds us, of erasing the many non-Arab strands of Moroccan identity along the way.
Hosting the tournament allowed Qatar to project its economic development, cultural richness, and modern infrastructure to the world. Through extensive media coverage the event offered Qatar, and the broader Middle East, an opportunity to challenge preconceived notions about the region. However, this World Cup, and the twelve years running up to it, drew more negative rather than positive publicity. Just days after the bid announcement, human rights campaigners used the global spotlight to draw intense attention to the costs of Qatar’s labor migration regime. The presence of international media and the influx of visitors for the tournament enabled activists to amplify their messages, raising awareness about the challenges faced by migrant workers involved in the construction of World Cup infrastructure. While the issue of migrant workers’ rights was the dominant area of interest, activists also used the occasion to speak about the unequal treatment and limited rights experienced by LGBTQ+ individuals within the country. Additionally, environmental and sustainability-focused organizations saw the 2022 World Cup as an opportunity to address concerns related to the ecological impact of such massive sporting events. Qatar’s hosting of the tournament raised questions about energy consumption, carbon emissions, and the sustainability of the infrastructure built specifically for the event.
In the heat of this World Cup moment, POMEPS partnered with Georgetown University-Qatar’s Center for International and Regional Studies—which has had a long-standing interest in studying sports and politics in the MENA region, and most recently completed a multiyear project on the World Cup—to bring together a group of scholars from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States to explore the deep interconnections between football and politics in the Middle East.
The topic of football and politics has been of increasing global interest across multiple academic disciplines in recent years. Scholars from various academic fields, including sociology, anthropology, political science, history, and cultural studies, have recognized that football serves as a unique platform for political expression, social mobilization, and the negotiation of national and cultural identities. For instance, the Egyptian football star Mo Salah has been the focus of several important academic studies. In 2022, CIRS published a collection of essays edited by Abdullah Al-Arian titled Football in the Middle East, which most directly inspired our efforts. In Al-Arian’s volume, scholars addressed a variety of important themes, including the historical roots of football and how it has been used as a political tool by autocrats, the influence of politics on the governance and regulation of the sport, and the ways in which football has served both as a site for cooperation and contestation between states and their societies. Overall, this work demonstrates that across the region football has been a means of fostering national pride, promoting political ideologies, or even challenging oppressive regimes. Building on this, the current set of essays aims to further uncover the complex dynamics that shape the relationship between football and politics, and shed light on broader societal issues and power structures.
We invited scholars from a wide range of perspectives, making sure to include contributions focused not only on the Arab world but also on Iran and Turkey. Initially, we had hoped for a broad look at a wide range of sports, and to move the conversation beyond just football. There is so much more to say about sports, politics, and society in the Middle East: the responses to Tunisia’s ascendant female tennis star Ons Jabeur, as an example of the critical need to examine women and sports; Saudi Arabia’s investment in an alternative professional golf tour and eventual acquisition of the PGA Tour; Formula One and its ever-expanding presence and popularity in the Gulf; the emergence of the UAE’s central role in hosting major international cricket tournaments, which makes a lot of geographic and financial sense given the massive, local South Asian fan bases; the bids by Gulf states to host the Olympics and the various Asia Cups, Africa Cups, Gulf Cups, and other subregional and regional competitions. But ultimately, all of our authors opted to focus on football. We blame the World Cup.
A number of themes emerged from the workshop discussions and the resulting papers. First, there is a long history of the political implications of sports. Almost every essay in this collection traces the interaction between football clubs and high-profile national political issues over the course of nearly a century. Demerdash and Rabaia each show how Palestinians sought to use football to assert national identity both before and after the establishment of the state of Israel. This resonates with the nationalist struggles against colonial rule in countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, where football clubs played vital roles in shaping and expressing aspirations for independence and self-determination. But as several of the essays suggest, this is not just about the past history of football but is very much tied to our current moment—football clubs continue to serve as sites of resistance, solidarity, and cultural expression. Football clubs are platforms for communities to unite and assert their national or regional identities in the face of repression, and they are also sustained spaces where political issues are discussed, debated, and confronted, serving to reflect the broader societal and political dynamics of their respective contexts.
Second, while acknowledging the continuities of sports’ histories and legacies in the Middle East, there is something qualitatively new about the investment by Gulf states—especially—in global sport. While Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup was a prominent regional milestone, it only scratched the surface of the broader and more aggressive state and private actor engagements with international sports. Abuamer and Nasser show how Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have competed to invest in football clubs not only locally but across Europe. There are intra-Gulf competitive dynamics at work, with several Gulf states engaging in open rivalry for regional dominance and influence via sports. Investing in global sport, particularly in football clubs, provides a platform for these states to assert their superiority and gain an edge over their neighbors. By acquiring or sponsoring successful teams (or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the entire Professional Golf Association Tour), Gulf states can claim bragging rights and symbolic superiority, not just in sporting but also in geopolitical terms. It can also be quite lucrative. Whether these investments amount to “sportswashing” remains an intriguing and unresolved question. Clearly there are also economic and status motivations, in addition to the classic conception of investing in global cultural events to distract attention from human rights abuses. While the motivations behind Gulf states’ investment in global sport are multifaceted, it is crucial to acknowledge that they are not mutually exclusive, and intertwine in complex ways.
But more than just an extension of regional geopolitics and rivalries, investments in internationally recognized and branded sports teams offer unparalleled opportunities for gaining global exposure and influence, something quite critical for the smaller Gulf states. These investments allow even the smallest states like Qatar to tap into a vast international fan base, leverage lucrative sponsorship deals with multinational corporations, and gain access to global media platforms. This expanded reach provides Gulf states with broader impact and heightened ability to shape narratives and perceptions on a global scale. Of course, there is also the negative blowback and heightened suspicion that these investments sometimes draw from audiences and stakeholders in Europe and elsewhere. Hostility to Saudi, Qatari or Emirati acquisition of local clubs may be muted when those teams succeed, but that can transform quickly into nativist or Islamophobic hostility should times turn tough.
Third, the essays in this collection show especially clearly how football represents a critical vector into local identity politics. Ryan shows how the rivalry between two local football clubs became a proxy for Jordanian-Palestinian conflict and veiled criticisms of the monarchy. Secen shows how Turkish politics get litigated in football stadiums, while Close traces the ill-fated venture of Egyptian Ultras into national politics, which culminated in a horrific massacre in a stadium in Port Said. Shahrokni shows how women’s ability to attend football matches became a critical battlefront in the ongoing struggles over gender and urban politics in Iran—one which foreshadowed the recent wave of protests. Kashfi’s article highlights the tensions between the Azeri demands for ethnic recognition and the Persian-centric narrative of Iranian identity, and demonstrates how Azeri football challenges the state’s institutionalized policies of cultural homogenization. Taken together, these diverse studies demonstrate how sports can become a lens through which expressions of societal division, power struggle, and marginalizations are magnified. Football stadiums morph into arenas where political ideologies clash and cultural battles are fought, but also where social movements find a platform and gain momentum.
Fourth, different levels of performativity shine through in these essays. One level is global. Jones focuses on the online space, showing how football played out in the hotly contested social media sphere through the weaponization of bots, disinformation, and misleading narratives. The 2022 World Cup presented a global spectacle through which a wide range of competing movements, organizations, and individuals advanced their narratives through online activism. Social media platforms provided a space for discussion, organizing campaigns, raising awareness, challenging dominant narratives, and driving conversations around critical issues associated with the event. The Gulf investment in European and global football clubs described by Abuamer and Nassar similarly generated high levels of heated online political rhetoric, some authentic and some manipulated. The rapid rise of football as a cultural fixation has challenged some Islamist movements and governments to adapt to popular reality, as Tuastad observes.
Fifth, moving from the disembodied global level to the local, existing work has highlighted the importance of stadiums themselves as a site for the study of sports and politics, and has emphasized how these venues serve as both practical and symbolic spaces. Stadiums provide a platform for fostering national identity and unity, reinforcing national narratives, and creating a shared national experience. They can be used by political regimes to promote nationalist ideologies and strengthen political legitimacy, but they also offer a space for subversive counternarratives that challenge dominant ideologies and repressive structures. Several of the contributions highlight the distinctive experience of the stadium itself, where fans coming together to support their favorite teams chant slogans and express their solidarities in provocative ways, which might be impossible anywhere else in society. Such dynamics are explored in Jordan (Ryan), Iran (Kashfi, Shahrokni), Turkey (Secen), and Egypt (Close).
The essays in this collection offer a rich and varied window into these multidimensional politics, from the local to the global and from the historical to the contemporary. They offer a tantalizing glimpse into the possibilities for future research. With thanks for the tireless editorial assistance of Georgetown’s Suzi Mirgani, we are delighted to now present this terrific collection of essays on the politics of sports in the MENA region.
- Zahra Babar and Marc Lynch, 21 June 2023
 For example, see the special issue of Middle East Report, The Politics and Passions of Football (fall 2022), available at https://merip.org/magazine/304/ and the seven contributions to the roundtable “A post-colonial World Cup for the ages,” Abu Aardvark’s MENA Academy (December 14, 2022), available at https://abuaardvark.substack.com/p/a-postcolonial-world-cup-showdown
 Hisham Aidi, “The (African) Arab Cup”, Africa is a Country (December 13, 2022), available at https://africasacountry.com/2022/12/the-afro-arab-cup
 Ala’ Alrababa’h, William Marble, Salma Mousa and Alexandra Siegel (2021), “Can Exposure to Celebreties Reduce Prejudice? The Effect of Mohamed Salah on Islamophobic Behaviors and Attitudes,” American Political Science Review 115, no.4: 1111-1128;
 Abdullah al-Arian, ed., (2022) Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game (New York: Oxford University Press)