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Middle East rides on the soft power of sport

 (ES Composte)
(ES Composte)

TWO photographs illustrate Doha’s past.

One is of pearl-fishing boats pulled up on the sand, next to a village of huts; the other is of a low-rise city in which the biggest building is the new Sheraton Hotel.

The point about these pictures is that they are not that old. The snap of the boats is at the beginning of the Twentieth Century; the cityscape is from the 1980s. Now Doha is home to some of the world’s most spectacular commercial and residential towers. The transformation is remarkable - so reliant was the small community on pearls even as recently as the 1930’s that a British resident commented that if the supply dried up, Doha would “practically cease to exist”.

Soon, we will see for ourselves what Doha and surrounding Qatar have achieved when we tune in to the World Cup. It’s a sight we had better get used to, as PwC research predicts hosting major sporting events across the Gulf region, including Qatar, will grow by 8.% over the next three to five years.

Already, Formula 1 races are held in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi; tennis tournaments take place in Dubai; golf competitions in Abu Dhabi. Doha itself has hosted the IAAF World Athletics Championships, the Asian Football Confederation Cup and the World Men’s Handball Championship. The Qatari hub will be holding the Asian Games in 2030.

The world’s sporting map is changing and the World Cup, the biggest event of all, is representative of that shift. In some ways, it was inevitable, as Qatar and its neighbours grew to become the richest countries on Earth, when measured by per capita. Reserves of oil and gas and financial and business trading and investment have propelled them to the top of the international wealth rankings.

Central to their increasing global footprint, however, is their appreciation of the soft power and influence generated by international sport. The pure business case should not be under-estimated either: Caroline Rose, head of the Power Vacuums Program at the Newlines Institute in Washington DC, reckons this World Cup will generate estimated profits of $17 billion for the Qatar economy. This, for a country of less than 3m people.

While much is being said and written in the Western media about Qatar’s human rights record and the treatment of migrant workers, that is not how the World Cup is playing across the Middle East. Among Arab nations it’s a source of immense pride that another is putting on the World Cup. Of course, there are local jealousies and gripes, but the footballing bonanza is seen as a breakthrough, elevating the regional bar even higher.

Throughout the Middle East, football is a major social and cultural unifier, and Qatar has positioned this World Cup as bonding and selling the Gulf countries as well as itself. More than 1m visitors are expected from around the world, especially Europe and South America, with many of them staying in adjacent states.

From the UAE, Air Arabia and Fly Dubai are running a combined 45 flights daily to Doha. Dubai hotels are fully booked for the duration of the competition, resulting in the postponement of the Dubai Marathon from December to February next year. Saudi Arabia is expecting a spike in football-loving pilgrims, while Kuwait is reporting hotel bookings up 24 per cent and Jordan 3%. Even Iran is predicting a bounce in tourism from the World Cup, having struck a series of deals with Qatar to host football fans.

In many ways it’s a test - this is the largest global event ever staged by an Arab country. A barrier has been crossed. From now on, given the financial clout available and the regional ambition, as PwC says, we can expect more of the same.