Royal Patronage: The Middle Eastern monarchies conquering combat sports

On Saturday night, the UFC will return to Abu Dhabi for the third time in the promotion’s history with a Pay-Per-View event headlined by…

By: Karim Zidan | 4 years ago
Royal Patronage: The Middle Eastern monarchies conquering combat sports
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Saturday night, the UFC will return to Abu Dhabi for the third time in the promotion’s history with a Pay-Per-View event headlined by a lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier. The event will take place in a bespoke 15,000 seat arena on Yas Island as part of a five-year deal with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism.

The longterm deal with the Abu Dhabi government, which guarantees a constant stream of title fights in the Emirati capital until 2024, is the result of the emirate’s Advantage Abu Dhabi program, which is designed to help organizers arrange festivals and shows in the region and enhance economic opportunities for the emirate. While the UFC’s commitment to Abu Dhabi will likely be fruitful for the promotion, it is yet another example of the rising trend of Middle Eastern monarchies investing in combat sports.

Sports have long provided opportunities for improved public relations, political gain, and the strategic realization of particular soft-power goals. This piece will attempt to shed light on two such examples: Abu Dhabi’s recent commitment to the UFC and Saudi Arabia’s successful bid to host the biggest boxing event of the year.

Abu Dhabi’s UFC Showdown

In 2010, Flash Entertainment, a subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates government, purchased a 10 percent stake in the UFC’s parent company, ZUFFA. The UFC would go on to visit the UAE on two separate occasions, and each visit was met with criticism regarding the UAE’s labor standards and institutionalized homophobia, among other concerns.

The UAE is a patriarchal country that permits discrimination based on sex and gender. Various emirates have different laws and criminal convictions for “unnatural sex.” Abu Dhabi, the capital where the UFC hosted two of its shows, hands out prison sentences of up to 14 years for same-sex relations.

Though the UFC’s new parent company, Endeavor, bought back Flash Entertainment’s share of the company in 2018, they later established a new partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi. The deal ensures that the UFC will host large-scale events in Abu Dhabi for the next five years.

“We are making a long-term commitment to Abu Dhabi because we have had great success in that market,” UFC President Dana White said in the official press release. “The demand from our fans to bring UFC back to Abu Dhabi has been overwhelming, and over the next five years, DCT Abu Dhabi will help us deliver some spectacular UFC championship fights to the UAE.”

Shortly following the announcement of the five-year deal between the UFC and the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi, the promotion revealed that lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov would make his long awaited return and headline the upcoming Abu Dhabi show — his first fight back since defeating Conor McGregor at UFC 229 last October.

As one of the most popular Muslim athletes in the world — behind only Liverpool’s star forward Mohamed Salah — Nurmagomedov’s placement on the Abu Dhabi show makes sense. The UAE is a Muslim country with a socially conservative population that will be drawn to supporting a fellow Muslim in the main event against an American foe.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The UFC further committed itself to Abu Dhabi when they allowed state owned pay-TV broadcaster Abu Dhabi Media (ADM) to secure exclusive media rights to the UFC in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Three months later, ADM announced the launch of UFC Arabia, a streaming service that offers live digital coverage of all UFC show in English and Arabic, as well as archived footage, for a monthly fee of $4.99. The service is available across the vast majority of the MENA region, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen.

Nevertheless, the streaming service will not be available in Qatar, making it the only Arabic speaking country excluded by the service provider. This is likely due to the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and a coalition comprised of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

The Qatar diplomatic crisis began in June 2017 when the aforementioned coalition severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing Qatar’s alleged support and funding for terrorism as the main reason for the boycott. The ATQ accused Qatar of supporting international terrorism and sanctioned non-state players like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. While Qatar has acknowledged that it provided assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country denied any involvement with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS).

Xinhua/Tu Yifan via Getty Images

The boycott extended to sports, as the UAE placed a ban on beIN Sports, the Al Jazeera television network’s sports franchise, in an attempt to limit Qatar dominance in the MENA region’s sports broadcasting market. While this ban was eventually lifted because of beIN’s exclusive rights to football events in the region, the UAE appears to be imposing another sports-related ban by limiting Qatar’s access to UFC events through ADM.

The UFC is now involved, albeit indirectly, in a geopolitical conflict in the Middle East. The promotion has not only partnered up with the Abu Dhabi government to boost the emirate’s economy, it has also allowed its platform to become a battleground for the diplomatic boycott through its UFC Arabia application.

And yet, while the UAE’s soft power strategy for socio-economic and political gain appears to be effective, it is a far cry from the charm offensive and lobbying efforts undertaken by one of its neighbours, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi’s Boxing Breakthrough

Saudi Arabia’s successful bid to host the biggest boxing bout of 2019 is the direct result of the country’s push for reform over the past three years.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia began to invest in sports and entertainment. The country’s General Sports Authority (GSA) set up a Sports Development Fund to bolster sports activity, increase participation, promote new sports events, and add 40,000 jobs to the economic marketplace as part of Vision 2030, a development proposal that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country would be free of its heavy reliance on oil.

The kingdom’s fascination with high-profile sports events fits into the broader Vision 2030 campaign, which seeks to present the country as a modernizing one. It also presents Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as a reformer anddiverts the average citizen’s attention away from the country’s abuses of power and its aggressive stance on foreign policy in the Middle East region. This includes the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in 2018, and the kingdom’s ongoing war with Yemen, which the United Nations has labeled a humanitarian crisis.

Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The next few years would see an uptick of international events take place in the kingdom. World Wrestling Entertainment signed a longterm deal with the GSA that guaranteed multiple shows on Saudi soil each year; PGA European Tour established an annual tournament to be played at Saudi’s Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, and Formula E held a race in Saudi Arabia — the first motorsports event of global significance to take place in the kingdom.

In October 2017, the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) announced that the WBSS Cruiserweight Final will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2018. The announcement, which was made following an agreement between The General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia and WBSS organizer and owner Comosa AG, took the combat sports community by surprise, as the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation had never shown exceptional interest in boxing. While the event was eventually relocated to Moscow to host the tournament final between Ukraine’s Alexander Usyk and Russia’s Murat Gassiev, the Saudi Sports Authority immediately sought out an alternative boxing show to host in Jeddah. That search led them to Amir Khan.

In July 2019, the former world champion stepped into the King Abdullah Sports Cityand defeated Australian boxer Billy Dib for the vacant WBC International welterweight championship. The event was the biggest boxing show in Saudi Arabian history and emphasized the country’s appetite for more events of that nature. It was also an impressive public relations feat for the kingdom, as Khan promoted the country and its ideals throughout his stay in Saudi.

During an appearance on a Saudi comedy show, Khan revealed that he dreams to have “many more fights in Saudi Arabia” and even admitted that he once had a negative perception of Saudi Arabia until he visited and realized that the kingdom was one of his “favourite countries.”

“I have options to fight in America, England and Europe, but I came to Saudi because I know the future is here,” Khan explained.

Less than a month following Khan’s victory in Saudi, Matchroom promoters announced that the heavyweight rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. will take place in Riyadh on December 7. Dubbed ‘Clash of the Dunes,’ the announced fight was immediately met with criticism from Western media outlets and human rights organizations alike. However, promoter Eddie Hearn defended the decision to stage the fight in Saudi Arabia,

Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

”We had approaches from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi,” Hearn told a media conference in London. “We wanted to go somewhere that believed in the sport of boxing, which had a vision. We already knew Saudi Arabia was for real and knew they were investing in the sport of boxing. That was very important for us.”

”If Saudi Arabia is going to invest in these fights, with the population they have, with the potential to grow the sport of boxing, you could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport, which truly excites me,” Hearn added.

With promoters defending their decisions to stage shows in authoritarian states on the basis of increased profit margins, there is little stopping Saudi Arabia from becoming a global powerhouse for sports events. This applies to other Middle Eastern countries such as the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar, all of whom have benefited from soft power strategies involving sports such as football, MMA, and the Formula 1.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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