The human rights activists outraged that the World Cup is being hosted by Qatar better get used to it. The same applies to sports purists who object to the games being held in a tiny country with no soccer tradition, and to environmentalists aghast at Qatar’s air-conditioned stadiums and its flying grass seed over from the U.S. to create lush playing fields in the desert.
The fact is, far from being an exception, Qatar is the most prominent example of a new reality: The Middle East, or more precisely the Gulf, is rapidly becoming a global sports capital. Despite the rising hackles of many in the West, the phenomenon seems unstoppable.
The Gulf has already established itself as a major venue for Formula One racing, with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia all home to events. Qatar is soon to join them. Saudi Arabia has been hosting major boxing matches, mixed martial arts events and e-sports and sponsors LIV Golf, a rival to the PGA Tour. Last month two National Basketball Association teams – the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks – played a pair of preseason games in Abu Dhabi, a first in the Middle East.
The Gulf countries’ have much bigger plans for the future. The Saudis will be hosting the 2029 Asian Winter Games at a resort outside its planned Neom smart city, where it promises there will be enough snow and ice for the competition. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are planning Olympic bids. The Saudis want to host the 2030 World Cup in conjunction with Egypt and Greece.
It’s easy to see why: The Gulf sits at the nexus between riches and repression. Soccer may be known as the “beautiful game,” but for the people who control it and other major international sports, money is even more beautiful. Meantime, autocracy is looking prettier by the day, even if the global sports establishment will never admit it.
Let’s start with the money. Major sporting events are expensive undertakings, especially if they are seen by the host country as a marquee project aimed at influencing world public opinion and enhancing their country’s brand. Without spending billions of dollars on stadiums, related infrastructure and marketing, the host won’t get the full value of his sports investment.
Thus the two biggest sports extravaganzas – the Olympics and the World Cup – “are among the most expensive projects in the world,” as Martin Müller, David Gogishvili and Sven Daniel Wolfe of the University of Lausanne note in their recent study on the economics of mega-sport events. The average cost of staging one, now about $10 billion, has been rising: By their estimates, the cost per athlete rose from an inflation adjusted $200,000 per athlete in the 1966 World Cup (hosted by England) to $7 million in 2018 when Russia was the venue.
When it just doesn’t pay
But even smaller events can be expensive to host. Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah SuperDome, which opened last year and played host to the heavyweight boxing match between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua, is the world’s largest geodesic dome, among other superlatives. It’s cost? A Google search didn’t reveal a number, which is a missing fact to keep in mind for later.
These events are not only expensive and beyond the budgets of many countries, but there’s almost never a payback. Examining 43 Olympic and World Cup events going back to 1964, Müller and his colleagues estimated that they took in a combined $70 billion in revenues and ran up more than $120 billion in costs. The average return on investment was a negative 38 percent. Only a handful of hosts turned a profit.
Even worse, the supposed knock-on effects on hosting a mega-sports event either never materialize or are so small as not to justify the investment. Qatar, which has reportedly spent a stunning $300 billion on its World Cup, almost all of it going to build a new metro, hundreds of miles of roads, an expanded airport and 20,000 hotel rooms, claims that the payback will come in increased tourism and business later on. But the record indicates otherwise.
And that’s where autocracy comes in. The dismal economic track record for the Olympics, the World Cup and other big sporting events have begun to deter many countries, especially democratic ones, from bothering to even bid. Saudi Arabia faced no competition for its unlikely offer to host the Asian Winter Games. For the 2022 Winter Olympics, four cities from democratic countries dropped out of the hosting competition, leaving only the dictatorships of Kazakhstan and China (the final winner) left.
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The axis between autocracy and mega-sports is a documented phenomenon, as another study by Adam Scharpf, Christian Gläßel and Pearce Edwards published in the American Political Science Review last month shows. Between 1972 and 1992, the percentage of international sporting events held in autocracies declined to under 10 percent of the total; since then, their share has risen to close to half. Admittedly democracy in general has been in retreat in recent years, but not to that extent..
Democratic governments that have to answer to their tax-paying voters can’t just go ahead and commit billions of dollars knowing there will be no return on the investment. Monarchies and dictatorships don’t face that obstacle. No one asked the Qataris what they thought of the al-Thani dynasty’s decision to lavish so much money on a soccer tournament. Ordinary Saudis apparently don’t even know how much the Jeddah Superdome costs.
The hue and cry over sports events being hosted by unsavory regimes isn’t likely to reverse this trend.
One reason is that the Gulf powers are deeply committed to sports as part of a wider drive to diversify their economies away from oil and towards technology, tourism and trade. To do this, they need to attract international investors and talent, which means remaking their image – no longer the world’s gas pump, but exciting places at the cutting edge of innovation and the peak of coolness. Sports is a big part of the formula.
The other reason is that the global sports establishment is content to partner with the Gulf. The lack of LGBTQ rights, exploitation of guest workers and restrictions on alcohol consumption pose challenges, but it seems that both the Gulf’s rulers and international sports establishment seem willing to compromise.
As to the reputational risk of doing business with autocracies, look how Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, cleverly turned the critics’ darts back at them. The West is hypocritical, he said. Enabling the World Cup to be played in places like Qatar is a blow against colonialism and imperialism – even as an act of atonement.
"For what we Europeans have been doing around the world in the last 3,000 years we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people,” Infantino told a press conference on the opening day of the games..
Three thousand years is a bit of historic exaggeration. Were the Druids colonizing Africa back in the Iron Age? No, but the Infantino defense gives FIFA carte blanche to do business with autocrats for centuries to come.