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Arab diplomacy on the pitch


In 1997, Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed, the former owner of Harrods, bought Fulham FC for £30m. He then went on to sell the team in 2013 for £150m. Under Al-Fayed’s ownership the club achieved new heights such as promotion to the lucrative Premier League, making Fulham an established name on a wider stage. This was the first notable case of Arab investment in major British and European sports and resulted in huge success. Since then, Arab investment in British sports has become more common, and remains highly beneficial for not only the team itself, but the community as whole. Sports serve as a bridge between different communities and countries, bringing people together; recently, Arab governments and individuals have played a big part in forming this bridge.


Arab investment has helped English Premier League teams become successful and invest back in the cities they are based in, Ons Jabeur was recently the first Arab woman to make it to the final of the prestigious Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, and Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah has signed a new long-term contract with Liverpool FC. Outside of the stadium, David Beckham and Lionel Messi have become tourism ambassadors for Qatar and Saudi Arabia, respectively. These are all hugely notable developments of diplomacy being achieved through sports, by bringing Arab culture into the UK, individuals serving as ambassadors and significant investment in teams and communities; it is time the UK government take notice and follow suit.


Arab Investment in Premier League Teams


Since being purchased by the Abu Dhabi Royal Family, Manchester City FC has become one of the best performing football teams in the world. The team is based in the impressive Etihad stadium and is surrounded by state-of-the-art football pitches for the use of the local community. None of this would have been possible without the significant investment from the United Arab Emirates.


The investment has also led to new housing being built in the area and high levels of income for businesses across the entire city being generated by the team’s supporters visiting for matchdays. Due to their success, Manchester City has supporters across the country, and around the world, that come to Manchester to see the games. This is beneficial for the city, as these fans will then spend money in local businesses while they are there for a game. The growth in football teams’ worldwide fanbases also leads to an increase in television rights fees - the amount broadcasters pay to show Premier League matches on TV. This money is paid to the teams themselves allowing them to invest further in their teams and local communities. The team has committed to using their money to help promote health, education, and inclusion for young people in Manchester, and everywhere they go.


Recently, the Saudi Public Investment Fund purchased Newcastle United FC. The city of Newcastle can expect similar returns of investment in the city and in the football team itself. In the last season, Newcastle United FC faced relegation immediately prior to being purchased by a the Saudi PIF, however with investment from Saudi Arabia, they succeed in staying in the Premier League. Aside from competitive reasons, this is incredibly important to keep further investment coming into the city, especially in the form of new job opportunities, and fans coming to support them and spending money in the city.


Ons Jabeur


Our 2019 Arab Women of the Year Award: Achievement in Sports winner, Ons Jabeur, has been breaking barriers for years, but recently captured international attention by making it to the final of the prestigious Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in the UK. She is the first Arab women to do so. The Tournament receives large amounts of media attention and extensive coverage on the players is aired around the world. Therefore, not only was her impressive performance displayed, but also coverage about her background and personality. This provided a newfound platform to show her country of Tunisia with renewed interest.

At our Awards Ceremony, Ons thanked her country in her acceptance speech and at Wimbledon she represented Tunisia very well. Many journalists and media outlets took special interest in her heritage, and she hopes this will help inspire young Tunisian and Arab athletes and help them receive attention on an international platform.


Through her performance and actions at the Tournament she broke barriers and crushed harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about Arab women and athletes.


Mohamed Salah


Mohamed Salah is one of the most popular and talented players for the hugely successful Liverpool FC. He is not only well respected for his impressive performance on the football pitch, but also for being a genuinely good person and extending kindness to everyone he encounters.



In his time at Liverpool, he has inspired understanding and acceptance, with football chants now including positive phrases about his religion and Egyptian background with a popular chant even referring to him as Liverpool’s “Egyptian King.” A devout Muslim, Mohamed Salah is known for praying during match preparations and his fans and team have shown incredible respect for this, with his team altering their pre-game schedules to make this easier for him. The team also made public that they have switched to non-alcoholic champagne for post-game celebrations out of respect. High profile Muslim players such as Mohamed Salah have also allowed for greater understanding of traditions such as those around Ramadan, with the Premier League introducing voluntary drinks breaks during Ramadan to allow Muslim players to break their fast on the field.


Mohamed Salah and his team represent the understanding and appreciation of differences that is possible under a common goal and values, through the use of their platform they are a great example of tolerance and acceptance.


Tourism Ambassadors


As the Arab world begins to open its doors more to international tourism, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are realising the importance of sports as a gateway and are marketing to sports fans. Both have signed contracts with large, popular sporting events including Formula One races, thoroughbred horse racing, and golf tournaments. They have also both hired football legends to serve as ambassadors for their country’s tourism. Qatar is being represented by David Beckham and Lionel Messi is representing Saudi Arabia.



Having David Beckham as a figure head for the Qatar World Cup, and tourism to the country as a whole, shows Qatar’s dedication to attracting British fans and tourists specifically, as he is a highly respected British celebrity and the former captain of the English national football team. Beckham is one of, if not the most, recognisable English footballer and so by bringing him on board Qatar are appealing to the widest possible audience.


Since beginning his partnership with Saudi Arabia, Lionel Messi has travelled to the country for the Jeddah season of art and culture. He frequently posted pictures from his time there on his social media platforms, to share the beauty of the country and culture to his millions of followers.


Both footballers have said they believe this partnership is important to increasing understanding of the countries and the region as a whole, by showing what it has to offer and opposing harmful media portrayals. Through visiting, tourists will leave with a better understanding and appreciation of the culture. This is the first step in bringing the Arab world and western countries closer together. Sporting tourism also offers the chance of more understanding between different nations’ fans as they all have a common interest in the event and as such as far more likely to interact with each other.


Next Steps for the UK


The UK has a huge opportunity to strengthen their relationship with the Arab world, through a common love of sports.


Ultimately, the UK is currently underutilising sports as a tool for diplomacy, especially with the Arab world. We would like to see similar efforts being made from the UK to attract Arab fans, investors, and players into the country and recognise the use of athletes as ambassadors for their country. Their athletes are also ambassadors for their country and should take that role seriously, making the UK a more inviting destination for fans, tourists, and potential investors.


The celebration of single Arab players breaking barriers is important to understanding their heritage and background and becoming more tolerant. These players should be highlighted on the highest possible platform for their achievements, including acknowledgement and respect for the barriers they are breaking.


The UK should also continue to make the country more accessible to all Arab visitors, who may be interested in travelling to support their athletes in competitions taking place in the UK. In light of the incredible efforts to encourage tourism made by the GCC countries, the UK should consider doing the same. This can also be done through sports, as many British athletes are travelling to the Arab world for competitions more and more frequently.


Conclusion


Sporting events can be a powerful tool for diplomacy. Football has been able to bring in foreign investment, benefitting multiple UK cities. Individual athletes have an incredible power to use their platform to encourage unity, acceptance, and understanding, as we have seen through the coverage of Ons Jabeur at Wimbledon and popular Liverpool player Mohamed Salah. Celebrity athletes have the power to open the door to new conversations, and through this bring the two regions closer together.


We hope the UK and London government bodies will see the opportunity international sport presents and form strong connections through them to bring the Arab world and United Kingdom closer together.



Cultural Awareness Training


If your company is looking to take advantage of the opportunities international sports events provide, now is the time to consider the needs and preferences of Arab fans and visitors. Sign up for our customised cultural awareness training to learn more about Arab culture, including sports, and how to become appealing to Arab investors.


Our course is customised entirely to your needs- whether you are looking to make your shop a popular destination for tourists or are taking your brand to the Arab world to sponsor a sporting event. We are here to help.


For more information, please visit our website at https://www.londonarabia.co.uk/middle-east-cultural-awareness-training. For any questions, or to schedule your consultation please email allison@londonarabia.com.