international analysis and commentary

Gulf sport geopolitics and Western cultural hegemony

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In September 2023, Fox News anchor Bret Baier conducted a remarkable interview with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, commonly known as MBS. In the interview, Baier raised the issue of how much money Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), has recently invested in global sports. He asked, “What do you say to the people who charge that that’s part of ‘sportswashing’? That you’re trying to use all of that to somehow improve or somehow affect your image in the world?”

Before he could finish the question, MBS quipped, “Well, if it’s sportswashing and I increase my GDP by 1 percent, then we will continue doing sportswashing.” Laughing nervously, but with a tone of incredulity, Baier asked, “You’re OK with that term?” MBS again affirmed his stance: “I don’t care. I have 1 percent growth in GDP from sport, and I am aiming for another 1.5 percent. Call it whatever you want. We’re gonna get that other 1.5 percent.”

Human rights groups responded with predictable anger, though perhaps the biggest shock for casual observers in the West was MBS’s flippant disregard for the condemnation critics in Europe and the United States have lobbed at Saudi Arabia in recent years. “Sportswashing,” the idea that authoritarian regimes intentionally use sports to improve their international reputation, is a recent buzzword that Western media and activists have used to scaffold their criticism of Saudi Arabia’s leadership.

MBS and FIFA President Gianni Infantino at a boxing match in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

 

But the fact that a non-Western leader should be so dismissive of Western claims on the right to judge their moral status should not come as a surprise given the broad history of decolonization. MBS’s dismissive comments should not be read through the lens of “sportswashing,” which is little more than an anti-intellectual cliché that erases the diverse interests at play in Gulf sports geopolitics. Instead, the Saudi leader’s’s response reflects a critique of global sports’ role as a Euro-American tool of cultural hegemony rather than an idealized tool for cultural diplomacy that many Western observers naively assume it to be.

 

Global sports and Western cultural hegemony

In much of the world, the end of formal empire did not mean the end of empire. Postcolonial elites and ordinary people alike continue to feel bound by the straitjacket of Euro-American hegemony. This does not mean that they reject the rewards offered by Western political, economic, and cultural institutions. Rather, many people in former colonial settings desire the rewards and prestige that come with joining the institutions of their former colonizer, but they are aware that they are at a disadvantage in securing those rewards because of their ethnic, linguistic, and racial identities. This is how hegemony works: the colonized internalizes the social and cultural aspirations, moral compass, and geopolitical worldviews of the colonizer.

Through these internalized value systems, the non-West forever chases Western conceptions of modernity.

Today, Western cultural dominance is readily apparent in the realm of elite sport, which is defined by a highly uneven geopolitics to which sports and events are privileged on the international stage and where global sporting events take place. For example, the supposedly “global” hierarchy of prestige privileges Western sports over others (soccer above cricket, hockey above bandy). Western countries have hosted a disproportionate number of global sporting mega-events, such as the Olympic Games (thirty editions in Europe, thirteen in the Americas, eight in Asia, and two in Oceania). This unevenness is rooted in how sporting bodies have organized mainstream sports since the birth of the Olympic movement in 1896. From the beginning of sport’s globalization in the early twentieth century, sport has always been a Western-dominated enterprise that promotes Euro-American institutions and sporting cultures.

This dominance has been given a positive framing in the West, where observers understand sport as a useful channel for cultural diplomacy. Proponents of cultural diplomacy see sport as a way to promote “mutual understanding” between countries through exchanges built around both high culture (oriented to elites) and popular culture (oriented to the masses). The idea of globalized sport as a realm of cultural diplomacy also unites elite and mass audiences, bringing together networks of politicians, national boosters, star athletes, and media figures alongside fans and casual spectators. In Europe and the United States, cultural diplomacy through sport has functioned as a way to spread Western values around democratic community-building, social empowerment, and “healthy” forms of competition.

The idealized, grassroots vision of sport diplomacy is best reflected in Western “sport for development” initiatives in the Global South, but promoting cultural diplomacy in the realm of elite sport is much more difficult precisely because it is elite. The world’s top-ranked athletes, teams, and associations are unquestionably talented, but their success represents the pinnacle of a system built on vast political and economic disparities that privilege Western actors and institutions and exclude many people from non-Western, formerly colonized places. This has meant that the West’s ambition for using sport as a tool of cultural diplomacy has instead served in practice as yet another case of Western cultural hegemony.

 

Modernity and Gulf sport geopolitics

Western cultural hegemony defines the geopolitics of sport in the Gulf today. The development trajectories of the oil- and gas-rich Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar exemplify the drive to achieve a Western model of “modernity.” In these countries, state boosters have taken a keen interest in tapping into the financial and cultural privileges of adopting a Western geopolitical orientation. A deliberate effort to promote Western-oriented modernization agendas began decades ago in Saudi Arabia, but intensified in the other Gulf states like the UAE after the early 2000s.

 

Read also: Global sport and the Gulf’s sovereign wealth funds

 

Seeking status recognition from their Western allies and business partners, Gulf leaders assumed that they could use their enormous wealth to overcome the “Orientalist” cultural stigmas plaguing former colonial territories in the Middle East that were late to develop economically. For the last twenty years, Gulf leaders have led modernization campaigns based on state capitalism and the advice of foreign experts, cultivating a trend of “capitalizing on cosmopolitanism.” This trend included importing cultural institutions from the West to build high-profile cultural icons in the Gulf–ranging from iconic Western museums such as the Louvre and Guggenheim to top-flight university branch campuses such as New York University, Abu Dhabi, and Georgetown University in Qatar.

Sport was also part of the early 2000s boom in cultural investment in the Gulf, which debuted with Qatar’s hosting of the 2006 Asian Games, the region’s first large-scale international sporting event. Meanwhile, Bahrain opened the region’s first Formula 1 track in 2004, and Abu Dhabi followed in 2009 with the spectacular new Yas Marina Circuit. Qatar also invested an estimated $229 billion in stadiums and other infrastructure to host the 2022 FIFA Men’s Football World Cup. Qatari, Emirati, and Bahraini companies and sovereign wealth funds also started to sponsor international sporting teams in the early 2000s.

A moment of the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup opening ceremony

 

This early period of investment in sport infrastructure points to the strong influence of Western cultural hegemony in Gulf sport imagination: local sports boosters pursue only the best teams, the most loved sports, and the most elite forms of infrastructure, as determined by Western cultural standards. In joining the elite Western sport milieu, elites in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE achieved some of the symbolic capital they desired. At the same time, they also reaped the financial rewards of investing in global sport – both through lucrative international investments in foreign clubs and in using sporting events to bolster urban development and infrastructure spending projects.

 

The Saudi sport splurge

Saudi Arabia was entirely absent from the early scene of Gulf promotion of sports and its financial rewards. However, when MBS took over as chairman of the country’s PIF sovereign wealth fund and appointed Yasir al-Rumayyan as its governor in 2015, things began to change. Since then, the two men have worked to aggressively remake the Saudi sport profile, both at home and abroad. In many ways, the recent Saudi sport investments reflect both a delayed reaction to what its Gulf neighbors have been doing for much longer and MBS’s desire for the profits his regional counterparts are making from the sport industry.

This is the financial logic MBS unequivocally asserted in the 2023 Fox interview – preaching, as he was, to his fellow citizens and not to the West. MBS is a savvy politician who knows that even if he is doing an interview in English with an American broadcaster, his citizens will take their cues from how he positions himself and his country in front of judging Western eyes. In the Fox interview, MBS did not just display his strength as a ruler; he was also staving off would-be critics of his Western-oriented remaking of Saudi Arabia. In publicizing his disregard for Western attitudes, MBS followed a common pattern among Westernizing elites in the Gulf: he assured his population that he was not “selling out” to the West, but that he really had their interest in mind – that his investment in global sport was really a way to secure more prosperous futures for them.

MBS’s political messaging notwithstanding, the Saudi fixation on buying into the Western sport landscape reflects the continued hold of Western cultural hegemony in the Gulf and the entrenchment of a geopolitical outlook that positions Euro-American sport institutions, teams, athletes, coaches, and events as the best in the world – the capture of which is imagined as the key to unlocking the elusive status of “modernity” in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal supporters rejoiced in 2023 for the transfer of Brazilian soccer star Neymar to their club

 

MBS’s brazen dismissal of the “sportswashing” label reflects a wider frustration among Saudis, and what similarly upset many Qataris about Western media coverage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup – that Western critics assume the right to judge their political and social systems and measure the Gulf against a yardstick of liberal democratic and secular norms. International media and human rights activists are unwilling to compromise on their idealized vision of free speech, transparency, and social justice. So as much as their judgment frustrates Gulf leaders and citizens, the moralizing rhetoric around elite sport is only set to increase as Saudi Arabia is now the only remaining bidder to host the 2034 World Cup and has many more sport investments to come.

 

The problem with “sportwashing”

The problem with clichés like “sportswashing” is that they represent a blunt application of moral judgment about Gulf credentials as sufficiently modern – undermining the idealized vision of sport as a tool for cultural diplomacy and instead being a blunt application of cultural hegemony. Gulf states’ leaders and citizens bristle against the Western hegemony exerted through sporting institutions. This frustration is shared in many postcolonial and post-communist settings, where Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes astutely point out that accepting Western social norms is often experienced as being forced to “accept the West’s right to evaluate their success or failure at living up to Western standards. In this sense, imitation comes to feel like a loss of sovereignty.”

Even though Gulf leaders are anxious about a similarly loss of sovereignty through investing in Western cultural standards, they continue to desire the financial rewards and symbolic capital that accompany participation in the globalized sports industry. The simultaneous frustration and hope derived from Western cultural acceptance may confuse outside observers, but hegemony works exactly through this contradictory cycle of desire and exclusion.

The intense negative media coverage of Gulf sport investments may also confuse actors in the Gulf because they have found enthusiastic partners in Western sport institutions, who are increasingly open to their investments and collaborations. In the face of significant financial challenges in the traditional sports markets in Europe and the United States, sport institutions like the IOC, UCI, FIFA, and PGA, as well as leading European football clubs, have all turned to Gulf capital to sustain or upgrade their internationally recognized brand. This reflects another aspect of Western cultural hegemony in sports: even as Euro-American institutions and actors face financial challenges at home, they still retain control of the sport landscape by selling their name and brand to partners abroad.

For this reason, if policymakers and sport leaders wish to challenge the influence of Gulf-based actors on the global sports landscape, they must understand the mismatch between their idealistic stories of sport as a tool of cultural diplomacy, versus the reality of how it operates as a tool of Western financial and cultural hegemony. By moving away from moralizing clichés like “sportswashing,” European and American critics can more openly and honestly evaluate the role of Western institutions and actors in the contemporary geopolitics of sport. It is only by redirecting this anxiety to an exercise in self-reflection that the West might reimagine global sport as a tool for cultural diplomacy rather than cultural hegemony.